Driverless cars could change the way you cycle

A new vacancy has opened at a London university for someone to predict how driverless cars will interact with cyclists

There’s a job for you if you can work out how cyclists will behave when driverless cars join them on the road.

One of the UK’s top universities, Imperial College London, is advertising a vacancy for someone to predict what will happen when driverless vehicles start mixing with people on bikes, including commuters, families, racers, club runs and delivery riders.

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Why? “The automotive industry is focusing on making sure autonomous vehicles don’t collide with anything but there’s almost no consideration of how it will affect the behaviour of other people, particularly vulnerable road users like cyclists,” says Professor Neil Mansfield.

When a driverless car comes in your direction, would you swerve out of the way? Or will you pedal straight on, trusting that its automatic safety system will prevent a collision? Or would you cause trouble by deliberately riding up to it and triggering its automatic brakes?

“There are anecdotes, like the Google car which froze when it detected a cyclist doing a track stand, but nobody has got any hard evidence,” says Mansfield. “It’s that kind of evidence which will need to be collected by whoever fills the post.”

British Cycling and Cycling UK already have plans to collaborate on the project so the researcher should get easy access to hordes of opinions from riders of all tribes.

More from Max Glaskin

Mansfield is not only a professor of design engineering who works with the automotive sector but is also a cyclocross racer and coach. So he’ll be supervising whoever gets the four year fully-funded studentship.

The job description will give the successful candidate a lot of scope. “This project will focus on behaviour of cyclists, understanding the likely response of a range of cycling personae (e.g. commuter, family, racer, club bunch, delivery riders) to autonomous vehicles in a mixed transport future,” it says.

So far, autonomous vehicles have gathered many more column inches in the media than they have covered in road miles but advances are happening quickly.

The shared pedestrian/cycleway of Milton Keynes is currently the test bed for a self-driving electric two-seater pod. The first commercial delivery by an autonomous truck was made in the US only this week. Robotic taxis are already on the streets of Singapore and Pittsburgh.

The role of could be filled by an engineer, psychologist or ergonomist. If they are successful in their research, they should end up with a PhD – and a healthy respect for both robot cars and cyclists.

Max Glaskin is an award-winning freelance journalist who tweets about cycling and science as @CyclingScience1.

He is author of Cycling Science (published by Frances Lincoln UK, Chicago University Press USA, and seven other languages).