Are driverless cars really nigh?

Next month I will pick up a new car which, in common with many new cars, will be largely self-driving. I will not have to stop it in traffic or when I enter my own driveway (it will stop itself), I will not have to maintain speed on the motorway (it will do that itself, taking account of vehicles ahead), and it won’t even have gears (it is CVT). Had I gone for a higher spec it would even have maintained itself in lane (or changed lane upon indication), recognised signs and adapted driving style according to whether it was about to go uphill or downhill. Actually, this technology has been around for over a decade now.

So inevitably my next car after this will be driverless, surely? Well, I’d say not. Indeed, I doubt I will ever see absolutely driverless cars.

There is a tragic reason for this, exemplied from the road safety record of none other than Germany. Last year, on the Autobahn network, there were four separate incidents where entire families were killed travelling in cars through roadworks at night. In each case, they were hit from behind by a lorry. In each case, the lorry had been operating primarily on something approaching driverless mode and the driver simply had not noticed the roadwork zone ahead. In one case even, an open laptop computer was found on the lorry driver’s lap.

This is why “pure driverless” could come to mean outright dangerous. There is an obvious parallel with aeroplanes. These too are largely driverless. A pilot can take off at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and 6-7 hours later land right on the centre line at Heathrow without any further intervention. Yet airline pilots are a highly respected profession with high pay to match. Why? Because when intervention is needed, they are highly trained to react quickly under pressure, taking control of the whole process if necessary. This ability is rightly highly valued, particularly given the number of people involved (and potentially endangered). And yet many multiples more people are killed and injured on roads than ever will be in the air.

It will, in my view, be the case for a long time yet that driver intervention (and thus driver training) is necessary with road vehicles. We may get to the stage that you simply put a destination in the satnav and the car more or less takes us there – recognising where all other vehicles are, what colour traffic lights are, and so on. However, when a child suddenly changes direction runs out in front of us… drivers are probably here to stay. Indeed, driver training should probably be more highly valued than it is.

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One thought on “Are driverless cars really nigh?

  1. […] piece on driverless cars a month ago drew some attention and some excellent debate, although there was also some confusion […]

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