Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Driving the technology forwards

I'm a big fan of technology, and its tendency to keep advancing.  I could hardly be otherwise, of course, given that I make my living from that same tendency.  I'm also quite a keen driver (as you may have noticed), so when the two come together you would think I would be doubly keen.  So why am I worried about the prospect of the driverless car?

Many worry that driverless cars won't be safe - that the technology won't be good enough.  After all, Windows crashes all the time, right?  Why wouldn't a Windows-powered car?  Well, I reckon the technology will be better than most drivers.  I suspect it already is, but that's mainly because I've seen what most drivers are like...

There is the old chestnut of driverless cars taking all the fun out of it, of course.  I don't subscribe to that, either; I think that driving will bifurcate into the mundane day-to-day stuff like getting to and from the office and the shops, which driverless cars will do, and recreational stuff like heading for a country pub in the summer with the roof down, for which we will still use sports cars and the like.  The main difference will probably be that the sports cars will all be carefully-preserved classics, which may not be a bad thing at all.

Then there are the ethical concerns, raised in various articles and recently mentioned by His Clarksonness himself in the Top Gear news section.  Essentially, this assumes that the car will have to make choices, and in some situations one of the options might be to sacrifice itself for the greater good.  A situation such as (say) a gaggle of children running out in front of the car, too close to stop in time, and the choice is to rely on the brakes and (inevitably) slaughter many kiddies, or to use the lamppost for additional braking and probably destroy the car and kill the driver in the process.  It would be somewhat galling if the car you paid a lot of money for decided to kill you, but I doubt that would ever actually happen.  Our wonderful lawmakers can be expected simply to slap an ultra-low speed limit anywhere that there might be pedestrians, so that the stopping distance is so short as to avoid the problem entirely.  Ta-dah...!

The real problem that worries me came to mind while I was thinking through the ethical one, and it is this.  At the moment, we teach children to cross the road only when they can walk to the other side before the oncoming cars reach them.  The reason for this is simple, if you think about it; the oncoming driver might be asleep, fiddling with the radio, chatting, on the phone, texting, daydreaming, or any combination of these, so there is a distinct risk s/he might not notice you starting to cross.  Therefore, you need to choose an option that fails safe, so you only walk if you will still survive even if the driver is comatose.

Once we reach a situation where most or all of the cars on the road are driverless,  this assumption will no longer apply.  We can confidently step out, knowing that the oncoming car will brake to let us cross.  The alternative is to program the cars to kill jaywalkers, which I doubt will happen.  Now, let's apply some knowledge of human nature, and think this through.  Imagine a busy town centre high street.  Shops on either side, pedestrians on the pavements, and a busy road through the middle.  How many pedestrians are going to wait for a gap in the traffic, and how many are going to make their own gap by stepping in front?  I think it's safe to say that a lot are going to take the latter option.

So, from the point of view of the driver/passenger, roads like that are going to be a nightmare - emergency stop after emergency stop.  The car's systems, by offering a level of reliability that humans cannot manage, will have effectively handed right of way to any pedestrian who feels like crossing the road.

The result will have to be the closure of all town centre roads, and their conversion to pedestrian precincts.  To keep the shops trading, they will have to provide plenty of car parks at the edge of the pedestrianised areas, and all the towns where the main roads pass through the centre will have to have bypasses built.

Actually, on further thought, that might not be a bad thing at all...

1 comment:

  1. Way ahead of you. I live right by a main road, have to go down the road to cross over, not when these cars come out. Straight out and across the road. I can even take as long as I like. They won't even be able to rev their engines in in agist manner. LOL. Plus it'll teach the grubs the right way for when they go out. Keep the population down.