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How Driverless Cars Could Empower Pedestrians

The hierarchy of the roads might be upended once walkers realize how law-abiding AVs are.
An autonomous Acura avoids mowing down around a dummy at Honda's testing grounds in California.
An autonomous Acura avoids mowing down around a dummy at Honda's testing grounds in California.Noah Berger/Reuters

Currently, most roads in the U.S. are designed around the needs of drivers, making them inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst for walkers and cyclists. With more vehicles on the roads, pedestrian fatalities are surging nationwide. You’ve already heard that autonomous vehicles stand to make streets much, much safer by putting a computer fully in charge of the split-second road-reactions that human drivers so routinely flub. They might also succeed in upending an age-old vehicular hierarchy: In a world where most cars are driving themselves, pedestrians could reign supreme.

That’s the premise of new research by Adam Millard-Ball, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He uses game theory to suggest that autonomous vehicles could benefit pedestrians by being more responsive to their behavior. “In most urban areas, pedestrians have many more rights than they actually assert,” says Millard-Ball—for example, they don’t always cross when they’ve got the light, fearing a collision. Once self-driving cars arrive en masse, walkers might be more even assertive than laws generally permit.