A HIGHWAY TO HELL?
My enjoyment of driving can vary wildly depending on my reason for travel. A solo outing with no time constraints, no traffic and an AC/DC-packed playlist can be blissful. Towing a caravan during a heatwave on a Bank Holiday weekend with two disgruntled kids bickering on the backseat, not so much…
Like most things in life, optimal conditions are required for experiences to be pleasurable. A gourmet picnic with good friends can soon be ruined by a thunderstorm. Music concerts can be marred by poor sound quality. Cinematic marvels can be compromised by the rustling of popcorn between every scene.
For a car journey to be truly enjoyable, a great number of factors need to align perfectly - a rare occurrence indeed on today’s busy roads full of impatient drivers and seemingly endless trails of traffic. For the most part, driving feels like a chore; merely a means to get from A to B that may be cheaper or quicker than other alternatives.
Arguably more comfortable than most modes of public transport, cars do have their benefits but they are also a hotbed for stress and anger. After all, road rage is something that every car traveller will have encountered to some degree. Whether that be the cacophony of car horns following a dangerous overtaking manoeuvre, or a full-on physical altercation, road rage is dangerously common nowadays.
A comparison can be drawn between busy motorways and the London Underground. Within moments of descending the steps at a tube station, new rules apply…
Civility and common courtesy are no longer the norm. Eye contact is rare. Grown, able-bodied commuters manspread on Priority Seats whilst pregnant women and elderly passengers are left gripping on to metal poles to steady themselves. God forbid you stand on the left of an escalator, as I have witnessed many international travellers do. At best you’ll be tutted at, but more than likely you’ll be barged out of the way by fleet-footed folk with bulky laptop bags and over-sized headphones. It’s a jungle out there!
Motorways at rush hour are similar in more ways than one. Illegal undertaking, pushy tailgaters desperate to break the speed limit at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps – if you’re lucky – you might even be sworn at, simply for wanting to return home to your family in a safe and sensible manner.
All of which begs the question, would I enjoy journeys more as a passenger in a car with no driver? I can certainly see the benefit of a fully autonomous car being on hand to give me a lift home after visiting friends or allowing me to get on with some work on the rare drive to the office.
A great number of today’s vehicles are already partially autonomous, with features including lane-departure warning, automatic emergency braking and parallel parking capabilities. Fully automated cars are on the horizon and picking up pace.
In 2015, the UK government announced a £20 million investment into driverless technology, combined with new laws for testing such vehicles on British roads. And we’re not the only ones moving up a gear where autonomous tech is concerned.
Giants BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Tesla are developing and testing new technologies as we speak. From Tesla’s driverless Autopilot system (currently being trialled on UK roads) to Google and Apple’s collaborative efforts with top vehicle manufacturers in the US, cars are undergoing a radical transformation straight out of a sci-fi movie.
But how does a notion from the realms of futuristic fiction translate to a feasible, reliable and - most importantly - safe mode of transportation?
The Google Car provides an interesting insight into how advanced technology will play a pivotal part in the driverless revolution. Featuring a forward-facing camera directed through the windscreen and a rotating roof-top LIDAR camera, the Google Car measures the distance between objects to build up a 3D map, thereby allowing the car to effectively visualise - and avoid - upcoming hazards including pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists.
What’s more, the car recognises and interprets road signs and traffic lights, utilises bumper-mounted radar technology to track other vehicles surrounding it (a method already employed by intelligent cruise control) and receives geolocation information via a rear-mounted aerial. These elements combined with internal gyroscopes, altimeters and a tachometer ensure the collation and evaluation of precision data for the safe operation of the vehicle.
It certainly sounds impressive. But would you trust it with your life?
There is a lot to be said for the substantial, awe-inspiring successes of technology that replicate, and even enhance, human actions and behaviours. Ranging from food mixers to cardiac pacemakers, all sorts of inventive ideas have come to fruition for the convenience, betterment or survival of our species.
In theory, autonomous cars should be safer than their human-guided counterparts. Humans do not have 360-degree vision, nor do they benefit from the same depth perception as a computer designed specifically for that task. Our reaction times are slower, and human frailties like tiredness and lapses of concentration can have fatal consequences.
Why, then, are some not convinced?
Nearly 1.25 million people die in road traffic crashes caused by human drivers every year - an average of 3,287 deaths a day. Despite advances in safety, this figure remains stubbornly consistent. It appears to be a price we as a society are prepared to pay to drive cars.
In 2018, a pedestrian was killed by on a road in Tempe, Arizona by an Uber test vehicle operating in self-drive mode. The reaction and setback this tragic event delivered to the advance of driverless cars suggests that we’re far less forgiving of accidents caused by technology than accidents caused by ourselves and other humans – even if the risk is lower.
According to a survey by Moneysupermarket.com, 73% of people would not feel safe driving with fully autonomous cars on motorways and 60% of people would prefer a human taxi driver.
When asked if they would let their child travel unattended in a driverless car, even if they could reduce road accidents by 90%, only 12% of respondents answered “yes”. From a purely logical standpoint, the figures don’t add up. The reverse statistic is that 88% of respondents would prefer their children to travel in a human-driven vehicle with a considerably higher chance of a collision. Where family are concerned, however, it is often a matter of heart over head. People find it instinctively easier to trust a fellow human than a machine, as explored in my recent blog “What would you trust a robot to do?
I expect it’s easier to feel more confident in your abilities as a driver, based on years of training and experience, than it is to put your trust in the “unknown”. For instance, how would a driverless car cope with icy roads? Do the cameras have blind spots? Does the bumper radar technology diminish with general wear-and-tear? Is it reliable? There is also a risk of hacking.
In July 2015, Fiat Chrysler recalled 1.4 million Jeep Cherokees after security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek demonstrated that it was possible to wirelessly control functions including acceleration, rendering the driver powerless. If hacking is possible with “regular” cars, imagine the devastating impact hacking could have on one that relies entirely on computer systems.
In an excellent blog on the subject, Rodney Brooks writes that the big challenge in the push towards driverless vehicles will not be technology, but people. He describes six levels of autonomy in vehicles – from level 0 which involves no vehicle control through to level 5 where the only human interaction required will be to set the destination and press start.
Technically we will be able to make reasonable systems with level 4 autonomy in the not too distant future, but the social issues will mean that the domains of freedom for level 4 autonomous vehicles will be rather restricted.
My guess is that we will never see close to such high numbers of deaths involving driverless cars. We just will not find them acceptable, and instead we will delay adopting levels 4 and 5 autonomy, at the cost of more overall lives lost, rather than have autonomous driving systems cause many deaths at all. Rather than 35,000 annual deaths in the US it will not be acceptable unless it is a relatively tiny number. Ten deaths per year may be deemed too much, even though it could be viewed as minus 34,990 deaths. A very significant improvement over the current state of affairs.
It won’t be rational. But that is how it is going to unfold.
As things stand, driverless cars are only deemed safe when operated in a controlled environment without human-driven cars present. With over a billion cars believed to be on roads across the globe, it could be a very long time before the sci-fi visions of the future are fully realised. Who knows, by then – as Doc Brown predicted – we might not even need roads…