Bikes put spanner in works of Dutch driverless car schemes

Report highlights problems bicycles cause to self-driving cars’ detection systems

The Dutch love affair with the bicycle has emerged as an obstacle to government plans to introduce driverless cars to the roads of the Netherlands.

A report on the levels of preparedness around the world has crowned the country as the leader in efforts to get ready for the new technology.

The Dutch government is working with Germany and Belgium on establishing “truck platooning” – where one human-driven vehicle leads a convoy of autonomous ones — on major roads.

Under the plans, about 100 driverless trucks would drive the “Tulip corridors” at night – from Amsterdam to Antwerp, and from Rotterdam to the Ruhr valley – fully maximising the routes through which the Netherlands distributes its goods using 5G technology and 1,200 smart traffic lights.

The Dutch infrastructure minister, Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, has announced a “driving licence” for self-driving cars, through which it would certify new autonomous models, and a framework of legislation – known as the Experimenteerwet zelfrijdende auto’s – is being prepared.

But a report by the professional service company KPMG highlights a major problem for Dutch ministers in introducing the technology to urban centres, where the bicycle is increasingly king.

Driverless cars detect other road users using a variety of cameras or laser-sensing systems to ensure that they stop if an object is detected in their path.

But the varying sizes and agility of cyclists, with their sudden changes in speed and loose adherence to the rules of the road, present a major challenge to the existing technology.

That challenge is particularly stark in the Netherlands, where 17 million people own 22.5m bicycles.

More than a quarter of all trips made by Dutch residents are by bike. Of all trips of a distance of up to five miles, a third are made by bicycle, with the rate only dropping to 15% for trips up to 10 miles in length.

Stijn de Groen, an automotive expert at KPMG, said in the report that for this reason the government would be best to focus on motorways. “We have a lot of bicycles,” he said. “In urban, crowded areas it will be very difficult to start autonomous driving.”

The report concludes that as a result it might “make more sense to keep transport modes separate rather than integrating [autonomous vehicles] to work there”.

The Bloomberg Aspen Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles has predicted that by 2035 up to 25% of new vehicles sold could be fully autonomous.

The KPMG report ranks the UK as seventh in the preparedness league. The consultancy firm notes that in August 2018, parliament passed the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act, which adapts the existing motor insurance framework by extending compulsory insurance to automated vehicles as well as the driver.

Last November, the government also announced support for three public trials in 2021, including self-driving buses across the Forth Bridge in Scotland and self-driving taxis in London.

KPMG’s 2019 autonomous vehicles readiness index warns, however, of the failure of the UK authorities to invest in digital infrastructure. “It lags behind other countries in 4G coverage, global connectivity, quality of roads (especially smaller roads) and logistics infrastructure,” the report concludes.


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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