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How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Cyclists around San Francisco?

Autonomous electric cars with artificial intelligence self driving on metropolis road, 3d renderingNew driverless cars are increasingly taking to roadways around the San Francisco Bay Area and more may be on the way. National Public Radio reported in August that the CEO of GM’s Cruise recently said in an earnings call that he believes the city could handle several thousand more on the road.

This comes amid a recent ruling from the California Public Utilities Commission that self-driving cars are now allowed to operate as a taxi service and claims from the city’s first responders that these cars slow down and even block roadways for firefighters and ambulances.

San Francisco fire chief Janine Nicholson said in testimony that the agency has recorded 55 incidents over the course of six months where self-driving cars have hindered emergency operations, including blocking streets and driving over fire hoses while firefighters douse flames.

With nearly every road user being affected by driverless cars these days, cyclists now wonder what the trend will mean for them.

Anne Dorsey, a software engineer in Waymo’s behavior division, tells Bicycling magazine that the company’s autonomous vehicles “will never be distracted by a text message; nor will it drink and drive or road rage.”

Of course, the promise of ultimate safety on the road is still largely unknown. Additionally, cyclists and pedestrians create an extra layer of challenge for these self-driving cars because they may be anywhere on the roadway.

“They can be following traffic rules or going against traffic. They can be in a lane or between lanes, and the difference matters a lot insofar as predicting what they’ll do next,” Bicycling writes.

So, what’s in store for cyclists? Pros and cons surround the arrival of autonomous cars.

Questions of Caution

In one case handled by Bay Area Bicycle Law attorneys, a driverless car saw a pair of elderly women near a road and made a judgment that the pedestrians may jaywalk, prompting the car to brake suddenly and consequently causing a cyclist to run into the car.

A driver may have recognized that the women didn’t present a danger, as did the cyclist, but the car instead made a decision out of caution, leading to an entirely different hazard for road users.

While some, including the company of the driverless car, argue that making decisions that are ultra-cautious is a good thing for autonomous vehicles, it prompts the question: Can you have too much of a good thing?

Testing for autonomous vehicles is still evolving, but that hasn’t prevented tragedy from striking. In 2018, a vehicle from Uber’s self-driving division miscalculated the distance of an approaching pedestrian walking her bicycle, striking the woman in a crosswalk while she was looking down at her cell phone.

An operator employed by Uber responsible for monitoring the system was in the driver’s seat and criminally charged for the death of the woman.

Future Personal Injury Cases

It’s not yet clear what cases involving driverless cars will look like, but they do seem to be on the horizon. In 2022, automakers reported nearly 400 crashes of vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems. 156 of those cases were of truly autonomous vehicles.

In 2022, Waymo reported 71 crashes in the state of California and Cruise reported 33, according to data collected by Bicycling magazine.

This August, two Cruise robotaxis were involved in crashes in San Francisco, one colliding into a firetruck on the way to a call. In one case, police believe that a human-operated vehicle ran a red light and caused the crash, but it has prompted questions about safety and regulation.

These are also relevant questions for attorneys, particularly those who represent people injured in accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

In cases involving ride share companies, for example, questions can arise of whether the parent company properly trained the driver, but it’s not clear how that will shake out when there isn’t a driver present, especially when a cyclist or pedestrian is acting within the law. Is it a faulty product if the product didn’t break a road law, such was the case in the event of the car braking for the elderly women?

Evolving testing and the likelihood of additional regulation from the state and federal government may dictate legal response to such a case.