Self-driving cars really are the answer to a question that doesn’t need answering. What a rubbish idea!
Think about it. There’s apparently this dream to be transported from one place to another in a box, without you having to go to the trouble of driving said box yourself. Hardly a new idea – trains and buses have been offering this magnificent service for decades. They even have the added bonus that you don’t have to worry about parking or garaging the things, and there’s no need to worry about servicing or MOTs. You just clamber aboard and end up where you want to go. Sort of.
Yet people cling to their cars like heroin addicts to a favourite spoon, even though from what I’ve seen, car ownership in cities can be a hateful, hateful experience. Frankly, even I would rather use public transport. When I go to London, I do.
Perhaps these are the sort of people who welcome the idea of self-driving cars. People who really can’t be doing with the tiresome business of having to move a steering wheel and operate some pedals.
What worries me most is the mixture of self-driving and entirely proper human-driving traffic. This article highlights the concerns. On the face of it, how great it is that robots were not to blame for self-driving accidents. On the other, it’s the unpredictability of these robot cars that is often at fault. If confused, the cars will just stop. Not always appreciated by following traffic and while sure, you should always expect the unexpected when you’re behind the wheel, the truth is that we do anticipate and hedge our bets in a way computers don’t. When you mix the two styles, the recipe is not always comfortable.
I’ve experienced this myself in Volkswagen’s clever e-Golf. It has Adaptive Cruise Control where radar is used to match the e-Golf’s speed to the car in front. This also allows it to detect if an accident is likely and even to brake to avoid a collision.
Problem 1. I was following a car turning left. The car indicated left and slowed down as expected. Yet the e-Golf panicked and slammed the brakes on really quite hard because it couldn’t anticipate that the car would move out of the way. Annoying. Especially for the car behind me. It looked like I wasn’t paying attention.
Problem 2. I was overtaking a car. Further ahead, a car was turning right and was in the appropriate filter lane. I could see that I would complete my manoeuvre safely within the confines of the road markings, and with plenty of space between all cars. The e-Golf saw the stopped car and panicked and actually applied the brakes even though my foot was on the throttle! I had to stamp down on the throttle to override it, but it interrupted my overtake and caused some digestive discomfort to the driver. And perhaps some swearing.
You see, we may crash an awful lot, but us humans really are quite good at driving. The decisions we make, and how quickly we make them, are very difficult to replicate. How would you programme a computer to see Problem 2 and deal with it safely? How can you programme it to quickly consider so many different factors?
The other problem is that I live in rural Wales. The roads here often lack road markings and/or clear boundaries. Sometimes, it’s hard to judge if two vehicles can pass. Yet, human brains seem pretty adept at making these judgement calls. You also have to adapt your driving style to suit weather conditions and the amount of mud pulled onto the road by tractors and the like. I can’t see self-driving cars getting on very well at all here.
So, they’re better off in cities perhaps, where pedestrian accidents should be a thing of the past – as self-driving cars are always on the look-out and don’t get distracted by girls in short skirts, topless young men or i-pods. But, really, cars should have no place in cities at all. Public transport does a far better job of moving a lot of people.
I therefore can’t help thinking that self-driving cars only exist because tech companies want to show off how clever they are. They are a stupid idea that plenty of us do not want at all. If they really are the future, then I’m bloody glad to say I’m of a generation where we were able to drive our cars and have fun with them. I am not ready to let the computers take over.