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Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are already being tested in cities throughout the world. Whether modest public transit shuttles or advanced driverless taxis, AVs are set to impact movement in a big way. Safety is already a major concern regarding the rollout of autonomous vehicles: reactions range from praising AVs as the cure to distracted driving, to frustration at their overly cautious driving style, to outrage when a significant accident does occur. The adoption of AV technology is moving quickly and safety needs to be a top consideration.

Transit agencies are perfectly placed to address safety concerns as both early adopters of AV technology and major stakeholders in creating road regulations. Here, we highlight actionable recommendations on how transit providers can best prepare for an automated future, and how fleet managers can protect their customers whether operating automated or traditional vehicles.

Autonomous vs. Human: Who is Safer?

Human drivers can be emotional, distractible and unpredictable on the road. In the United States, the top three causes of motor vehicle accidents are speeding, distracted driving and drunk driving. AVs, on the other hand, will operate exactly as they are programmed to, obeying the letter of the law without the ability to become distracted or inebriated. However, AVs rely on a suite of sensors in order to understand the world, and these are not always accurate. Inclement weather and ambiguous or unanticipated situations constitute major difficulties for autonomous sensors and can result in compromised safety.

How to Make AV Technology a Viable Option

Whether operating AVs or the traditional vehicles that share the road with AVs, transit providers need to pay close attention to the emerging safety concerns of automated travel. Following are some important considerations for both types of transport.

Speed

We all know that speed is a major cause of accidents, accounting for over a quarter of all 2016 traffic fatalities in the United States. AVs should be integrated with strict limitations on maximum speeds in order to reduce damages if an accident occurs: many innovating companies are introducing their vehicles to the market at low speeds. This slow and steady approach has its own risks, however; in pilot tests, many human drivers are frustrated by AI’s strict adherence to road laws, and can end up driving around the tentative AVs.

Education

In any situation where traditional vehicles are sharing the road with AVs, it’s imperative that drivers receive training about how AVs behave. Education is especially important when attempting to mitigate the impatience of human drivers. It could take many years for AVs to be on the majority of our roads; in the meantime, drivers need to be taught how they operate and how to engage with them in a positive and safe manner. For example, AVs always come to a complete stop at a stop sign, something that many human drivers don’t do. Training human drivers to expect such actions from AVs will go a long way to reducing frustration and improving safety.

Controlled Environments

At this early stage of AV integration, limiting driverless vehicles from public road access is another strategy to improve safety. Tests should be conducted in a variety of conditions in a controlled environment that mirrors reality as close as possible. For example, AV sensors are generally still struggling to cope with adverse weather conditions like rain. This is especially critical for Level 4 and 5 vehicles—vehicles that do not require any driver aid—which should not be permitted on certain roads until they are proven capable of handling all driving conditions in a particular jurisdiction.

Infrastructure

Transit agencies in particular should be thinking about how infrastructure can be utilized to improve safety. Today’s AVs have to read an environment—including signage—that was designed for humans, but because their sensors can’t make judgements in the same way humans do, their judgements are prone to failure. For example, simply putting stickers on a stop sign can cause an AV to completely ignore it. Transit agencies should work with local officials and industry leaders to plan out their roadmap for AV integration, with an eye to ensuring their roads are as easy for AVs to interpret as possible in the coming years. By relying more heavily on the Internet of Things (IoT), and building infrastructure that can better communicate with AV sensors, transit agencies may be able to establish a safer environment for self-driving vehicles.

Most importantly, transit providers and fleet managers should be informed and proactive. Reviewing AV regulation, their integration into existing fleets, and how different continents are preparing for the coming AV wave can be an excellent place to start. Whether planning for a safe autonomous fleet or educating drivers on how best to engage with AVs on the road, forward-thinking agencies are watching the AV evolution closely and planning their agency’s future.

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Image: Shutterstock / fotogenicstudio