by Tom Still

A week after a woman was killed by a self-driving car in Tempe, Ariz., while walking her bike across a dark street, Uber’s ability to test and operate autonomous vehicles was suspended by Arizona’s governor.

Given that public safety is a prime duty of government, Gov. Doug Ducey’s suspension made sense pending the outcome of federal and state investigations.

It won’t make much sense in the long haul.

One of the promises of self-driving vehicles is they will prevent more accidents, avoid more injuries and save more lives than the status quo, which is about 40,000 traffic deaths per year – including about 6,000 pedestrians struck down by drivers for a mix of reasons.

That promise may be years away from being fulfilled, but a leading bicycling advocate and former mayor of Madison thinks self-driving vehicles will deliver in time.

“We believe AV technology will be a positive development for the safety of people who ride bikes and walk,” said David Cieslewicz, director emeritus of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation and Madison’s mayor from 2003 to 2011. “Automated vehicles don’t drink and drive, they don’t look at their cell phones, they don’t fall asleep and they aren’t subject to road rage.”

Cieslewicz spoke at the March 28 meeting of the Steering Committee on Autonomous and Connected Vehicles Testing and Deployment, which was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker last year to examine a variety of aspects tied to the advent of self-driving vehicles in Wisconsin.

The panel’s charge includes leveraging Wisconsin’s research expertise and existing test tracks, examining law changes, assessing effects on pedestrians, bikers and other vehicles, and generally making ready for the inevitable.

Coming shortly after the death of Elaine Herzberg, 49, in Tempe, the committee’s latest meeting offered a chance to stand back and evaluate the proper role of government when technology takes society in new, exciting and sometimes challenging directions.

Cieslewicz said the Bike Fed, the nation’s largest statewide bicycle advocacy group, approves of the committee’s approach to the coming AV revolution so far. “But like any new technology – whether a wonder drug or a new toaster – it is important that government looks out for consumers. We can’t always trust private industry to do the right thing,” he said.

The Bike Fed analyzed 26 fatal crashes between bikes and motor vehicles from 2015 and 2016 in Wisconsin, concluding that 15 of those deaths could have been prevented had the car or truck been a self-driving vehicle.

At the same time, Cieslewicz said, pedestrians and bicycles represent the “biggest challenge” to self-driving vehicles for many reasons. Recognition is one such barrier, in part because bikes and their riders come in different sizes and shapes and not all use designated cross-walks.

“It is probably not insignificant that (Herzberg) was walking her bike when she was struck,” Cieslewicz noted, a fact that complicated self-driving car’s recognition problem.

Experts agree that bikes don’t show up as well in some AV systems. “Bicycles are probably the most difficult detection problem that autonomous vehicle systems face,” UC-Berkeley research engineer Steven Shladover said in a 2017 story for the IEEE Spectrum, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The solution isn’t to ban autonomous vehicles long-term over a tragic death, but continue to test and improve upon their design and technology while adapting the transportation infrastructure so that others in the future may live.

A day before Wisconsin’s AV steering committee met to hear from Cieslewicz and others, a $1-billion deal involving Waymo, the driverless car company spun out of Google, was announced. Waymo plans to push ahead in the United States and elsewhere with a fleet of cars, starting first with service in the Phoenix area. Its 600 vehicles have already amassed 5 million miles of tests on public roads.

Driverless cars, trucks and even tractors are coming to Wisconsin and elsewhere. The pressing question is not “if” but “when” and under what safety standards.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is a member of the Steering Committee on Autonomous and Connected Vehicles Testing and Deployment.