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AVs in the Netherlands? Don't forget the bikes

First publishedin ITS International
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Ah, Amsterdam: narrow streets, canals, bikes…maybe AVs should go somewhere else © Radub85 | Dreamstime.com

The Netherlands’ famous love of bicycles could be a problem when it comes to the deployment of autonomous vehicles there. And there might be other obstacles, finds Ben Spencer

Of all the countries on the planet, the Netherlands is most ready to start deploying autonomous vehicles (AVs), according to a survey by KPMG earlier this year. On the face of it, this is good news: coming first out of 25 countries listed in the Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI) for the second consecutive year puts the Dutch ahead of the pack.

In March 2018, Dutch infrastructure minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen announced plans to launch platoons of more than 100 driverless trucks on major routes from Amsterdam to Antwerp in Belgium as well as from Rotterdam to the Ruhr Valley in Germany. It was this work with neighbouring countries to adopt AV technology for freight which kept the Netherlands in top slot.

But one caveat in KPMG’s research generated the most media attention (‘Unforeseen hitch for Dutch AVs – too many bikes’, ITS International, March-April). “We have a lot of bicycles,” said Stijn de Groen, manager digital advisory, automotive, at KPMG in the Netherlands. “In urban, crowded areas it will be very difficult to start autonomous driving.”

Not possible

So, too many bicycles = difficulty for AVs. However, that’s not the whole story. While riders on two wheels present problems, Robbert Lohmann, chief commercial officer at AV developer 2getthere, believes that a mass deployment of AVs is not possible in any city at this stage – regardless of bikes.

“We firmly believe in incremental development, with AVs first learning to operate in mixed traffic where the number of potential scenarios that can be encountered are limited, before jumping in the deep end,” Lohmann says. He warns that human drivers will be able to “take advantage of the courteous nature of AVs”, by taking the right-of-way instead of abiding by the local traffic regulations. “The urban areas that will be best to integrate AVs are those areas where the design of the environment results to the desired behaviour by all road users (cars, bikes, et cetera) and not only the AVs.”

Lohmann recommends that authorities should set clear and strict regulations for the deployment of driverless cars and that manufacturers should avoid low-speed demonstrations which have a safety driver on board. “These demonstrations don’t add to the learning, but are becoming a business model by themselves. They don’t contribute to the advancement of the industry in any way,” Lohmann insists.

‘Car-less drivers’

Dr. Carlo van de Weijer, director, smart mobility at Eindhoven University of Technology, emphasises that cities need car-less drivers rather than driverless cars. “Cycles, just as all traffic, runs by unwritten rules most of the time,” he says. “Unwritten rules cannot be programmed, by definition. And if we allow robots to learn unwritten rules it would be a pure case of speeding up the end of humanity.”

However, Van de Weijer recognises that some locations do have more cycle-friendly infrastructure, making them less problematic than other areas. “Although we will not get a lot of driverless cars, we will see autonomous cars (as cars that can take over control most of the driving time) and they will better be able to do so when, for instance, a separate bike lane exists,” he adds.

Van de Weijer believes that issues surrounding an AV deployment can be resolved through implementing more demarcated cycle lanes - a physical separated lane - or establishing a low-speed zone with priority for slow modalities. According to Van de Weijer, the Dutch government and local authorities can help by providing predictable infrastructure, good 5G connection, and by decluttering the infrastructure - as “less intelligence on streets is better for the system”.

Van de Weijer thinks that AV manufacturers should also concentrate on advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) so that vehicles can take over when drivers are about to mess things up.

“Be aware that in the future the chance of an accident is independent of whether a car is autonomous or not,” he concludes. “That’s the most-heard argument for AVs and it’s nonsense.”

Ancient infrastructure

In a more positive light, Peter van der Knaap, managing director of SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research, does not believe that an AV deployment is impossible - but warns that it will be difficult to realise.

“This is because of the ancient infrastructure in most Dutch cities, such as Amsterdam, which has canals and narrow roads - as well as the unpredictable nature of cyclists and pedestrians,” van der Knaap says.

While recognising that demarcated bicycle lanes may solve part of the problem, Van der Knaap maintains that this approach will not prevent crashes at intersections. He emphasises that an improvement in consumer awareness of AVs could help reduce the risks; one study revealed that most vulnerable road users (VRUs) preferred driverless vehicles which can communicate with them: “For example, AVs can let the vulnerable know that the system has detected the VRUs and the AV will yield - or not yield.”

He warns that a certain level of autonomy, which requires a driver to intervene, will only make things worse. “This is the ‘transition of control’ problem. It is very difficult for ‘drivers’ to do nothing related to driving and then suddenly have to drive,” van der Knaap adds.

He predicts that there would be a ‘takeover request’ once the car enters an area or domain with cyclists. Therefore it seems that the issues surrounding a mass AV deployment in Dutch cities go much further than the risks presented by cyclists alone. While there may be no clear-cut answer, a focus on improving infrastructure and encouraging cyclists to share the road more safely with vehicles controlled by robotic systems could go a long way.

Consumer opinion and recommendations

KPMG issued a series of guidelines for the 25 countries, insisting that the Netherlands and Singapore could outpace other countries if they focus on investing in AV-related firms and R&D, industry partners and an innovation-friendly business environment.
Countries such as Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway and the US are leading in technology and innovation, but an increased focus on achieving greater policy and institutional clarity could take them to the top of the rankings.
KPMG claims that six out of 10 countries which lead on infrastructure – Australia, Austria, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates - should reform their policy and legislative environment. An establishment of AV regulations and institutions could help improve some of the parameters that are in place, such as network connectivity and 4G coverage.
The other countries which make up the top 10 for infrastructure readiness are the Netherlands, Singapore, Norway and the US.
Less-developed AV markets such as Brazil and India could take advantage of the high consumer interest in AVs if other areas such as policy and technology are addressed, KPMG adds.

KPMG AVRI: new entrants and trends

KPMG ranked Singapore in second place in the AVRI 2019 ranking for creating a test town for driverless vehicles, complete with traffic lights, bus stops, skyscrapers and a rain machine which recreates wet and tropical weather.
Norway came third and is one of five new entrants in this year’s study. The country legalised AV testing on public roads, and operators have started small-scale autonomous bus services. An autonomous taxi pilot is scheduled to begin this year. Other new entrants into this year’s ranking include Finland (6), Israel (14), Czech Republic (19) and Hungary (21).
Richard Threlfall, global head of infrastructure at KPMG, says the findings show that governments are focusing on the modernisation of transport and ensuring that innovation in driverless cars and trucks delivers real benefit to their communities.
The report ranked the UK in seventh place, describing it as “lagging behind other countries” in its quality of roads, 4G coverage, global connectivity and logistics infrastructure. However, it acknowledged investments are being made in 5G to connect to test beds and test tracks.

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