This is why self-driving cars will be programmed to let cyclists rule the roads

One of these vehicles will inherit the earth. Image: Getty.

“…if a ball were to roll onto a road, a human might expect that a child could follow. Artificial intelligence cannot yet provide that level of inferential thinking.”

This quotation, from a 2012 paper put together by KPMG, has already been overtaken by the extraordinary progress in the development of self-driving cars. But programming a self-driving car to anticipate a child following a ball is the easy part of the problem. The tricky bit is programming the car’s response.

“Slam on the brakes”,  is the obvious answer. But it is one that ignores the problem that such a programmed response will have invented an exciting new game for children: throw the ball and watch the car stop.

Here is the vision of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, quoted in the New Yorker in 2013:

“… if cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls... Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland.”

Absent from this vision are pedestrians and cyclists, who would have to be cleared from busy urban streets for it to become reality. Cars can be programmed. People are more difficult.

All of the descriptions and video demonstrations of progress that I have found so far with the help of Google, itself the leading proponent of self-drive cars, demonstrate quite convincingly that, in a future in which all cars are self-driven, interactions between cars could be controlled in a way that would make car travel safer and more efficient – on motorways or on any other roads from which pedestrians and cyclists are excluded.

But these descriptions and demonstrations also stress that, in the case of interactions between cars and people outside cars (pedestrians and cyclists), the cars will have to be programmed to behave “deferentially”. Moral reckoning to one side, anticipation of the public relations disaster that would follow the first killing of a child by a driverless car demands failsafe programmed deference to those on the street but not in cars.


This deference would clearly become obvious to pedestrians and cyclists and, secure in the knowledge that they were now kings and queens of the road, their behaviour would surely change. Pedestrians would no longer cower at the roadside trying to judge whether gaps in the traffic could see them safely to the other side. They would be liberated to stride confidently into the road, knowing that traffic would stop for them. And all cyclists, not just children, could enjoy the freedom to cycle two or three abreast with friends, holding up middle fingers to the cars honking behind.

So how might this play out in Britain, where cycling is rising in congested city centres such as London, but falling in most of the country? Government policies point in different directions at once.

In his last Budget, chancellor George Osborne appeared to share the Google dream, announcing £100m of government money for the country’s “brilliant automotive industry … to stay ahead in the race to driverless technology”. But this dream will only become a reality if pedestrians and cyclists are removed from our streets.

At the same time the mayor of London is promising to spend almost 10 times that sum over the next decade on cycling. Boris Johnson, like Sergey Brin, also has a vision: one of cleaner, quieter, safer streets with road space reclaimed from cars, and car parks converted to parkland.

However, the mayor’s transformation will be achieved not by driverless cars but by bicycles. The model is the Netherlands, with three London boroughs designated ‘Mini-Hollands’ in the hope that the programme, “will help make them as cycle-friendly as their Dutch equivalents”.

The mayor’s Dutch vision notes that cycling in London has trebled in the last 10 years. Some 24 per cent of vehicles on the road in central London in the morning rush hour are now bicycles; the aspiration is a further doubling by 2020. Johnson’s ambition is to make cycling, “normal, a part of everyday life”. And although his plans include some segregated cycle super-highways, he is clear that “nothing I do will affect cyclists’ freedom to use any road they choose”.  

But just as self-drive cars will be designed to stop for children and their balls, so they will stop for pedestrians and cyclists. And if these are allowed to use roads alongside self-drive cars, then drivers will spend most of their time going nowhere. The chancellor’s and the mayor’s visions for our roads are contradictory.

This essay was commissioned on the assumption that I would be sceptical about the idea of driverless cars. But as a London pedestrian and cyclist I am beginning to think that they are a great idea.

John Adams is emeritus professor of geography at University College London.

This article appears in London Essays, a new journal from the Centre for London. Issue 2, looking at technology, is published today. You can read it in full here.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.