The best way to accomplish Vision Zero—the ambitious plan currently under way to completely eliminate traffic-related fatalities in New York City—may be to nix drivers altogether. Although road design is a factor in encouraging higher speeds, the city's action plan for the program makes it clear that drivers are the problem: "Dangerous driver choices are the primary or contributing factor in 70% of pedestrian fatalities," the plan states.
If Google's latest demonstration of its self-driving car software is any indication, the most effective way to make our streets safer might just be to design the driver out of the equation—because robot drivers are far better than humans at sharing the road with pedestrians and cyclists. Unlike humans, self-driving cars don't make dangerous choices.
As Chris Urmson, director of Google's Self-Driving Car Project, writes:
We’ve improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously—pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn. A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t—and it never gets tired or distracted.
In the video demonstration (around 1:07), Google's self-driving car comes up on a cyclist riding on the side of the road. The car, which can detect the cyclist's left-hand turn signal, slows to let the biker move into the lane ahead. Then the cyclist moves back onto the side of the road. When the cyclist changes his mind and uses a hand signal again, to indicate that he's moving back into the car's lane, the car yields. Later, at an intersection, the car detects cyclists approaching behind it, and waits to make a right—so it doesn't turn into any of the cyclists.
Importantly, an autonomous vehicle doesn't experience road rage. It won't get impatient waiting for pedestrians to cross the street, or annoyed when a cyclist weaves in and out of lanes. "We still have lots of problems to solve" before self-driving cars can become commonplace, Urmson admits, but it's obvious that those cars are inherently more polite than the typical urban driver.
And here lies what could be one of the autonomous vehicle's greatest strengths (aside from the ability to turn into a mobile office): It's designed to follow the rules, something we can't always expect of people.