Why we’re not ready for driverless cars
If you invented the car today, it would never be allowed. The idea of one-ton vehicles capable of more than 100mph travelling towards each other, often only inches apart while being controlled by all-too-fallible humans with fairly minimal training would seem ridiculous.
Yet that is today’s reality. While every death is a tragedy, it seems almost miraculous that “only” 1,792 people were killed on Britain’s roads in 2016 (the most recent data available), with a further 24,101 seriously injured.
Now imagine you’ve just invented the car but there’s no human behind the wheel. Instead, it’s controlled by computer. Its microprocessors never get tired, lose concentration or drive while drunk. Its sensors – such as cameras, radar, lasers – are better than human vision. This vehicle doesn’t speed, overtake dangerously or jump red lights.
The technology exists to create a self-driving car. In fact, thanks to Britain’s permissive laws, they are already being tested on public roads. The Government wants to see cars without a safety driver on board by 2021. Human error is the cause of 90 per cent of accidents, so no wonder the rush for driverless cars is accelerating. Will it happen? Yes. By 2021? I doubt it.
The problem with putting a computer behind the wheel is not technology, but humans. There are more than 37 million vehicles licensed for Britain’s roads and they are driven by people. While computers might drive logically and follow the rules, people often don’t.
Driving on Britain’s congested roads often requires taking calculated risks, diving into a probably too small gap in traffic and expecting other drivers to make room, for example – often with a flash of lights or a rude gesture. Tests in the US have seen cars stranded as they won’t try this. Research has also revealed cases of driverless cars being “bullied” by pedestrians. Knowing the computer will slam on the brakes, they step out in front of them without worry.
Then there’s infrastructure. Cars might be able to react independently to the world around them but they require highly detailed maps to navigate. With roads changing constantly, how will they react to somewhere they suddenly don’t recognise? The task of accurately mapping the ever-changing highways and byways is huge – and integrating it into a constantly updating database to be accessed in real time is even bigger.
Cyber security is also a massive issue. Hackers taking control of individual cars or the infrastructure they depend on could easily see transport grind to a halt. Or worse.
The technology for autonomous cars exists and the rationale for them is strong. But unless we can remove the human element from the roads and have computer-controlled vehicles as the only form of traffic, then 2018 won’t be the year of the driverless car.