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Are we going to be sacrificed to automated cars?

Sometimes this summer and autumn FEMA’s General Secretary Dolf Willigers had the feeling that we were more involved with cars than with motorcycles. In almost all the events he visited, the subject was automated cars.

Dr. Abayomi Otubushin of BMW
Dr. Abayomi Otubushin of BMW

Like almost everybody else I used to call them autonomously driving cars, but since Dr. Abayomi Otubushin of BMW explained that a programmed vehicle can’t be called autonomous and should be called automated, I stand corrected. You’re never too old to learn something new. So now it is automated cars. I am really fascinated by it. Not by the cars themselves, and the first driverless cars actually have been spotted in the USA, but by the whole process that is going on now. Suddenly all manufacturers and the big IT companies come with predictions and forecasts. Some realistic, some far from that. But almost all are afraid to lose the competition.

And because really automated cars are still far away, they try to come as close to it as possible and provide their new models with ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems); automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assistance, blind spot monitor, driver drowsiness detection, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems are just some of them. One manufacturer went even further; he combined some of these systems, called it Autopilot and claimed that the driver could let them do the work. Only they can’t and he was forced to withdraw his claim after some real accidents and many near-accidents.

Not only the car manufacturers are engaged in this competition. Governments and even the European Union are tripping over their own feet to be in front. With thanks to the automobile lobby. The High Level Group on Automotive Industry ‘GEAR 2030‘ “will in particular consider a roadmap for the smooth rollout of autonomous vehicles”. This group consists mainly of delegates from the car- and motorcycle industry.  Permissions are issued to have tests on the public roads with automatic driven cars and with (truck) platooning. Cars with ADAC systems get type approval. Even Tesla got European type approvals for his models and for its Autopilot.

In their haste the governments and authorising bodies forget to investigate if the cars and systems are well tested or do some proper testing themselves. And with well tested I mean not only tested with other cars, but also with pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles. The Dutch RDW (Netherlands Vehicle Authority) still owes me an answer to the question if the trucks and cars used in the platooning tests in the Netherlands in May 2016 were tested with motorcycles. In Norway a young female motorcyclist was hit from behind by a Tesla in Autopilot mode. Letters were sent to Elon Musk of Tesla, the Norwegian government and to RDW with questions about the testing and about changing the characteristics of the Tesla after the type approval. We’re waiting for an answer when I write this, they are only recently sent.

Testing new hardware and software on cars and trucks with motorcycles is an issue, but this is probably not the worst thing we are confronted with. There is also an ethical side on automation. In emergency situations choices have to be made. A car suddenly appears in front of your automated car, or a truck loses a heavy object right in front of you. Almost a classic example is digging machines that fall of a trailer. Imagine the situation when this happens: a digging machine just in front of you, a motorcycle on the left side, trees on the right side of your car. You have three choices:  try to brake, which will not be enough, so you have a serious risk of getting killed or at least severely injured. Or take your chances and swerve to the right, trying to avoid the trees.

And the last option: swerve to the left, which will save you but the motorcycle rider will be killed. I can’t fill in for you what you will do, but I can fill in what your automated car will do. It will kill the motorcyclist. Why am I so sure about this? Because this is what the manufacturer of the Mercedes cars has told us. Mercedes will choose to preserve the life of the car passengers at all costs, because that is what their customers expect them to do. This means that all manufacturers will have to make the same choice. They can’t program their cars otherwise, because then all potential customers who value their life will buy a Mercedes instead of their cars.

Now we have to engage, as a motorcyclist organization, not only with car development and testing, but also with ethical and moral discussions around automation. We not only have to fight to be included in the development and testing of driver assistance systems and automatic driven cars, but also for the right to be saved from mad software developers who will sacrifice us motorcyclists to spare their customers.

Written by Dolf Willigers

Explanation automated cars
The SAE, the Society of Automotive Engineers, distinguishes six levels of automation:

  • Level 0: This one is basic. The driver (human) controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power.
  • Level 1: This semi-autonomous level means that most functions are still controlled by a driver, but some (like braking) can be done automatically by the car.
  • Level 2: In level 2, at least 2 functions are automated. It means that the “driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time.” The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however. This is where most new cars, including Tesla, are now.
  • Level 3: Drivers are still necessary in level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. It means that the driver is still present, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for previous levels. Many experts now advocate to skip this level in the development, because the switch from doing something else and to take over control of the car takes between 15 and 30 seconds. A lot can happen in that time. Personally I also think we should not allow level three vehicles on the public roads.
  • Level 4: This is what is meant by “fully autonomous.” Level 4 vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” It’s what Tesla says will be available by 2018.
  • Level 5: This refers to a fully-autonomous vehicle that does not have any option for human driving—no steering wheel or controls.
Driverless cars on the roads
We all know the Google cars that drive around without a driver, but in fact that doesn’t mean much anymore. These cars have a very limited speed of 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) and ride around in a small area.In several countries driverless passenger transport vehicles like the WEpod are driving around with a max speed of 15 km/h. In one of the tests in the Netherlands, because of this low speed, they were using the bicycle lanes, which wasn’t a very smart idea of course. This test was stopped within a week, but another test with WEpods in the Netherlands is still going. They are supposed to drive a fixed route between a railway station and a university campus in another town. It’s not clear however if they driving the whole route with passengers.In 2017 Volvo will have a test with 100 automatic driven cars equipped with their DriveMe technology around Göteborg (Sweden) on public roads. This already looks more like it, but I really hope they are well tested off-road with motorcycles.

Uber already has driverless cars riding around in the USA.  Their subsidiary OTTO has a truck on the road that can drive automatic. Only in the city portions of the trip the driver has to take over.

In Pittsburg some self-driving Fords Fushions (known by us as Ford Mondeo) are already in use by Uber since September 2016 and the first really automatic driving Uber-Volvo XC90 SUV has been spotted in October. This Uber-Volvo doesn’t use Volvo’s DriveMe technology, but Uber’s own system.