Autonomous cars are gradually lurching closer to being a reality. Pretty soon kind of cars that mortal man can dare to aspire to will soon have an automatic pilot that runs beyond a simple cruise control. But what do you – the folk who will be sharing your roads with robots – really think?
Personally, despite my slightly dystopian outlook a year ago, I’m all for it. So long as I have the choice to drive my car how I like, when I like, if I like, it matters not one jot if it’s endowed with layers of NASA-grade technology. As autonomy reaches Level Three capability and beyond, though, one point intrigues me:
How many drivers will actually use it as it’s intended before it becomes mandatory?
Volvo, Mercedes, VAG and countless others are in a race to bring us the best, cleverest autonomous car technology, even though I can’t remember anybody actually asking them to. I suspect it was Tesla that started it, with their Autopilot system that kind of caught other carmakers napping, and coming from such a young upstart of a company, too.
But what intrigues me the most is that, from where I sit during regular motorway trips, the way people drive seems to be nothing like how an autonomous car typically behaves. A computerised ‘piloted drive’ system will work on logic, physics, fact and probability to make its driving calculations. As far as I’m aware, an autonomous driving system is usually set to obey the prevailing road laws. Although the speed limit can be broken, this can only happen up to a pre-set maximum, and only to match speed safely with the traffic flow.
With human drivers, things take a different complexion. We fall foul of temptation. We’re impatient, and we tend to operate to the parameters of “what we can get away with”. It’s hard to resist blasting past a cluster of slower traffic, and if those motorists are already hovering around the legal limit, you can’t pass them without breaking laws.
Conversely, if your car is part of that 70mph cluster, there’s no reason not to sit back in autonomous mode and let the computer take the strain. In theory, the more cars are travelling under logic control in this predictable, digital fashion, the safer the road will be. But everybody will be moving at the same speed – and some drivers won’t like that at all.
There are people on the road who just aren’t willing to wait patiently in a queue, no matter how quickly that queue is moving. Some people want to get ahead – if they think they can get away with it. The only way is to exceed the speed limit and break the law. The only way to break the law will be to disengage autonomous mode. And the only reason to disengage autonomous mode will be to break the law. That’s kind of self-incriminating.
I worry that the gradual take-up of semi-autonomous cars will actually increase the speed differential between the legal and the lawbreakers. While today’s British motorway arteries run thick with cars travelling at between 70 and 90mph and all points in between, the risk is that autonomous traffic will be doing 70 and the lawbreakers will be doing 90 – just to nip past quickly. One mistake at a 20mph speed differential could cause chaos.
If this becomes a problem – if it comes to a point that non-autonomous mode is exclusively used by high-speed lawbreakers, it’s only logical that full autonomous mode eventually becomes mandatory on major roads, to remove that element of human impetuousness and risk. And if that happens on major roads – how long before it becomes the case in town and country? How long before legislation forces manual driving to becomes a minority activity practised by eccentrics, like HAM radio and metal detecting?
If you put aside our primal addiction to the feel of driving, autonomous cars are generally a force for good, and manufacturers are hell-bent on delivering them. And they’ll sell like hotcakes. But I feel it’s going to be very hard for motorists, any motorist, to let go of the wheel completely.
(Images courtesy Jaguar Land Rover, Hyundai and Volvo)