Expert Blog

Argh! Beware the invasion of the driverless cars!

Look out! They’re coming! And they’re driving really, really carefully! 

This month driverless cars will arrive on UK roads. As part of Government-sanctioned road-testing trials, the ghost cars will be quietly and sinisterly creeping along the high streets of Greenwich, Bristol, Coventry and the roundabouts of Milton Keyes. Though some would argue that Milton Keynes was conquered by robots years ago.

This may ultimately result in much safer roads, less congestion, faster travel times and cheaper insurance, as well as a boon to disabled and elderly people, but it will be the beginning of the end of the world as we’ve known it. Albeit in a very boring fashion. 

Yes, for the time being the only commercially available self-driving vehicles are harmless open-air shuttles for pedestrian zones that operate at a maximum speed of just 12.5 mph. But don’t be fooled.

Proper car manufacturers are planning to change all that. Nissan aims to launch driverless models by 2020. Tesla claims that their cars will be 90 per cent capable of autonomous driving in 2015. And Google believes that its Level 4 autonomous cars – that is, totally self-driving – will be available to the public within the next 3 to 5 years. One of their zombie cars already passed the Nevada state driving test in 2012. The IEEE believes that by 2040, 75 per cent of all vehicles will be autonomous.

Worse, the dastardly road robots are here already, or at least their fifth columnists in the form of all those ‘driver’s aids’ fitted in production cars today. Self-parking and emergency braking are common, while adaptive cruise control is available on a wide range of production cars – using cameras, lasers and radar, it can control your distance from the vehicle in front as well as, on some models, staying in lane.

Some cars such as the latest Nissan Qashqai can now even ‘read’ speed limit signs – just in case you don’t have a passive-aggressive partner to do that for you.

But perhaps the most dangerous fifth columnists for the driverless cars invasion are the humans who enthuse about them. They paint a picture of a safe, stress free, luxurious future in which we’re all Lady Penelope, driven around by our robot Parker, who never ever makes any mistakes – and doesn’t see what’s going on in the back. 

Or else they think they they’re going to be David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider, with his trusty, rather tasty KITT. Or Tom Cruise in Minority Report in his sexy autonomous Lexus. In reality, driverless cars will be much more like the chirpy, crappy robot taxis in Total Recall. But without the joystick override that Arnold was able to grab having uprooted and ejected the annoying robot driver.

Once humans are unplugged from the business of driving cars and become instead glorified luggage, the automobile will stop being an extension of the human body/spirit/ego. Instead of some strange, techno body-art, this wheeled thing that humans have had a torrid, Freudian love-affair with for over a century will become a long distance automatic pick-up machine, shuttling people around like stock in an especially gigantic Amazon warehouse. While they update their Twitter status with pictures of the view of the strange ‘Real World’ glimpsed from the car window – and buy more stuff online.

One man’s utopia is another’s apocalypse. Cars will vanish from the sides of our streets and car sharing will become usual rather than exceptional. Taxi drivers, chauffeurs, lorry drivers and much of the ancillary motoring business of car dealers, garages and spare parts will be scrapped. Essex will become depopulated. With fewer cars and greater efficiency, consumption of fuel is likely to fall dramatically, and along with it government revenue. People awaiting organ transplants might have to wait longer, since traffic collisions are the main source of human spare parts

There will be no going back. There’s no reverse gear on car automation. Once surrendered to robot cars, human agency is gone forever. I don’t mean that in a Stephen Hawking AI Skynet takeover sense – though that as well – but that eventually most driverless cars, like Google’s already, won’t have steering wheels or pedals. 

They would only get in the way, and be a reminder to the passengers of their obsolescence. Most of all, it would be frankly crazy to allow people who haven’t actually driven anything for years except their finger over their smartphone – or Grand Theft Auto – to take control of a vehicle in an emergency.

We don’t need to wait until all or even most of cars on the roads are driverless. Once there are significant numbers of them on the road they will change the way human-operated cars drive – making them drive more like machines. Which is very bad news when humans do it. Studies have shown that human drivers sharing roads with autonomous cars copy the autonomous cars’ driving styles and leave less space between the vehicle in front. But are not able to stop nearly as quickly. 

As the number of driverless cars on our roads rise, insurance premiums for human operated cars are likely to rapidly become prohibitive, especially when compared to goody-goody autonomous ones that never nod off, smoke, eat, drink, do their hair, use their mobiles or look for a Genesis CD while driving.

Perhaps the scariest development is the way autonomous cars could have ‘ethics settings’ to deal with the ‘trolley bus dilemma’ – do I kill a child or my passenger? Split second decisions which were usually a secret between you and your god will have to be legislated and coded.

We will have made machines not just our unpaid and unloved drivers but our judges and executioners.


Guest Blogger: Mark Simpson. Journalist, Writer and Broadcaster.

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