Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto: Humans Negotiating Autonomous Vehicles Is the New Driver's Ed

Robot hand with a car key. Andrey Suslov/iStock/Getty

When cars were first introduced in the early 20th century, they had to share the roads of North America and Europe with horses and bicycles. It was never an easy relationship. Although technological, economic, social and political considerations eventually made cars the dominant presence, no one fully resolved their competing claims to the road, which is why we have so much trouble integrating cycling into today’s transportation mix. With the advent of driverless cars, we have a chance to correct that mistake.

City planners should start by giving serious thought to how humans can co-exist with AVs. To head off a potential backlash against driverless cars, public awareness campaigns will need to educate pedestrians, drivers and cyclists about not only the possible benefits of AVs but also how to interact with them.

Many problems will arise from AVs being overly cautious, as a cyclist in Austin, Texas, learned in 2015, when small movements to keep himself upright while at a stop sign caused a Google AV to freeze for fear that he was about to dart into the intersection. Human drivers, pedestrians and cyclists regularly break traffic rules and communicate with one another in ways that may not be compatible with AVs. The danger is less that AVs will plow into humans ignoring traffic rules and more that pedestrians and drivers will take advantage of their caution by, for example, crossing in the middle of a block or going before they have the right of way. Drivers might also drive unsafely around overly cautious AVs and even reject their presence on the road altogether. Driver’s education should include how to avoid triggering overly conservative AVs and deal with their abundance of caution. It should emphasize the need to adhere to the formal rules of the road that AVs expect and what to do in the case of an accident with an AV. There’s also a pressing need for research.

FE_FutureofTravel_06_867011872 Robot hand with a car key. Andrey Suslov/iStock/Getty

The Knight Foundation recently announced a five-year, $5.25 million initiative focused on how five cities (Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh and San Jose and Long Beach, California) can best enable AVs to benefit their residents, particularly those in underserved communities. But for what is already a billion-­dollar industry, much more needs to be done.

No one foresaw a century ago that the automobile would soon upend how we design and build our cities. Likewise, many consequences of AVs are likely unknown. By paying more attention now, we might avoid the next generation of unforeseen consequences. People must remain the drivers in a driverless future.

Debra Lam is the managing director of smart cities and inclusive innovation for the Georgia Institute of Technology. John Wagner Givens is an associate professor at Kennesaw State University.