Whoops! Last month one of Google’s self-driving cars collided with a bus near the mothership in Mountain View, California. For the first time, the car itself was to blame rather than someone else on the road, raising one or two questions around our autonomous future – surely our Jetson-style fantasies about driverless cars aren’t roadkill already?
Despite the resulting media hoo-ha around safety, robot cars still have more going for them than not. In 2013 there were more than 8,000 casualties from drink drive accidents in the UK and 260 deaths. This will simply not happen in the future.. unless tomorrow’s robots like a drink.
The fact is, we humans are pretty selfish creatures that sometimes behave like idiots. Computers will logically and automatically give each other space, meaning less congestion and no chance of the car in front blocking us or busting out the road rage. Fuel costs will obviously go down – yay, and we’ll never have to look for a parking space again – simply hopping out wherever we fancy and having the car go and park itself. When the kids get older we parents will claw back a bit of the mad hour each morning while the car does the school run by itself. And when all human error is eliminated, the speed limit will rise and all our journeys will be quicker. Oh, doesn’t it sound lovely!
No-brainer you might say. But how long is it going to be before I can pretend I’m in the Batmobile zooming over the Dartford Crossing?
In February last year driverless cars were officially trialled for the first time in the UK. In February 2016 the government announced that certain roads will be equipped with technology to help autonomous vehicles, with the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin calling it ‘a landmark moment’.
Last week the Government said that a mixture of driverless, semi-autonomous and manual cars could be on UK roads well within the next ten years, which is exciting, but led to AA president, Edmund King expressing concern for the transition period which he expressed as a ‘potential nightmare scenario’ until all road users can coexist in harmony.
Personally I’m not sure whether we’re going to have answered all the legal, ethical and security questions by then. If there’s no driver, can we celebrate by cracking open the champagne? Are my teenage kids going to be safe if I’m not with them in the car? How will licensing work? Who’s liable for malfunctions – the ‘driver’, the manufacturer or the tech provider? And then there’s the ever present data dilemma. Google is going to be collecting data about how we drive, but that’s ok if we know about it, right? After all insurance companies are already doing that.
The implications are endless. But I’m glad, touch wood, that I’ll be around to see the day when self-driving cars are the norm. Now, what about the flying ones?