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.

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL