Roads full of driverless cars may not occur for a while yet
Mainstream availability of driverless cars is further away than you might think
Another day, another press release announcing the imminent arrival of driverless cars.
This one reckons they’ll be on our roads by 2021 and sets out to highlight “some of the less predictable consequences” of that happening.
To give you an idea of the angles taken by this attempt at making headlines, these include the threats of underage driving, mass unemployment, an increase in drinking, a shortage of organs for donation and — yes, you are about to read this right — a heightened threat of hostage situations.
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In fact, it’s quite impressive just how many negatives they have managed to spin from the potential benefits of driver assistance systems.
But, above all, they appear to have overlooked the most predictable part of driverless cars taking to our roads in 2021 — namely, the fact that they won’t be, with the exception perhaps of a very limited number of trial vehicles being operated under very strict conditions.
Let’s be clear: mainstream driverless cars or autonomous cars — call them what you will — are still a generation or more away, if they are ever allowed to happen at all. Maybe, just maybe, it could be possible in designated areas built for that purpose, but the prospect of these vehicles taking on mixed-use roads designed 100 years ago in London feels a very long way away.
There have been some progressive voices expressing concerns about this for a while, most notably Thatcham Research, whose expertise in the fields of safety and security continues to stretch further and further into the boundaries of new car technology. The trouble is that Thatcham’s calls for common sense are all too often being drowned out by the hullaballoo surrounding the possibility of the future arriving in our lifetimes.
As Thatcham’s experts point out, what is coming is an increased level of driver assistance, not driverless technology. The fear, of course, is that if we talk in terms of cars being driverless, people will get in the cars thinking that they don’t need to pay any attention. That is categorically not the case in any cars on sale to the public today — and, even with a fair wind, won’t be for another 15 years at least.
Evidence that emerged from several accidents already suggests that people buying cars equipped with driver aids don’t always understand what that means.
Just recently, a study in the US highlighted the obvious drawback of cars boasting huge amounts of driver assistance: that people are responsible for most of the accidents involving them, be it by being at the wheel of other cars that hit them or being the person in the car making the error. Which draws you to the inevitable conclusion that, as long as people are involved, there will be accidents, no matter how clever the computers are. Logic may be able to be programmed, but logic soon runs out in the chaos of the real world.
The next conclusion, then, is that there will be a choice to face.
A brave, wealthy or insistent government or leadership team could perhaps push the development of driverless cars, the required road infrastructure, the legal framework and more, and then tell everyone who owns a car to replace it with one that is driverless so that they can all talk to each other. It sounds unlikely but possible, perhaps in somewhere such as China, where they could potentially benefit from such a leapfrog in standards.
The other option is that an optimum level of driver assistance is reached, and left at just that. In which case, you or I or even our children will never be able to buy a driverless car.