To boldly go… into the driverless car race

I recently had the privilege of addressing students from London’s Imperial College who, as part of their design engineering courses, had been asked by the Volkswagen Group (VAG) to look into possible innovations in car-sharing and autonomous driving within the next five to ten years.

The gist of my talk was that it’s very clear the automotive industry has found itself in a race to perfect the driverless car.

In an environment traditional hard-metal manufacturers have dominated for more than a century, we now see a beauty-parade of potential players entering this challenging area.

World leading digital players, including Google, China’s equivalent Baidu, and Apple plus the mobility providers reacting to an urbanisation of the world’s population like Uber and Lyft, are all scaring the carmakers into a headlong dash towards making autonomous vehicles a reality.

And it’s not difficult to identify what the main driver is – money! All the main players want a slice of the driverless cake albeit none can be too sure where it will lead.

Societal pressures of urbanisation just oils the wheels of this new technology. Statisticians have recorded, for the first time in human history, more people inhabiting cities than rural areas and, at the present rate of growth, they predict that by 2050 70% of mankind will be urban dwellers.

Indeed, we’re already seeing the first signs of this trend’s effects because while last year UK car ownership rose by 2% per head of population, it fell by 5% in London, the most urban of cities where car-sharing is growing at a pace.

Safety, too, is muted as a major incentive to promote increasing levels of autonomy with much being debated about Vision Zero.

Yet the recognised architect of this initiative to put an end to all road casualties, Claes Tingvall, postulates a frankly ludicrous condition to achieve Vision Zero saying: “We must prevent the recruiting of new motorcyclists. In long-term thinking, I regret to say that motorcycles must go.” This flagrant assault on freedom of choice must surely be resisted by any society based on personal freedom. Or else, what are we to ban next: mountaineering, sailing, pot-holing, scuba-diving, exploration? In the US, owners of semi-automatic rifles plead the Second Amendment to keep hold of their beloved armoury – are they going to let go of their equally beloved ‘Hogs’?

However, some may feel the safety card is being touted about as a way of lobbying governmental authorities to bend or amend existing regulations to suit the needs of the new technology, even to the extent of dipping into the taxpayer’s purse to assist this becoming a reality. To an extent it is working – the UK has just announced plans to test on motorways with £20M funding following Barack Obama’s promise that the US intends to fast-track legislation for testing driverless cars.

But why are we seeing the politicians suddenly lining up behind the autonomous vehicle bandwagon? Could it be that they are worried less about road fatalities than the fact the West, and the US in particular, could lose its dominant role in the technology as China pledges a full driverless car programme by the end of 2016?

Naturally, there are many challenges to getting this technology onto our roads in any meaningful transport solution way. Not least among them is the inherent stupidity of robotics where a vehicle cannot distinguish between a squirrel and a wild boar, slamming its brakes on when a tumbleweed rolls across the carriageway – as witnessed on the VAG US coast-to-coast so-called driverless adventure last year.

I see the real key to open what some see as a Pandora’s Box of robotic technology is going to be artificial intelligence. Only when a machine can anticipate, analyse and independently decide on the least-worst scenario, in any given set of driving conditions, will autonomous vehicles be allowed on open unrestricted roads.

Such a robot would be aware of a human piloted 44-tonne articulated lorry hanging off its rear bumper and weigh up the issues of emergency braking for a deer on the road or ploughing straight into it hoping the safety systems save the driver. This is much more of a serious issue than several silly essays on ethics I’ve read debating the prospect of the car swerving to avoid one accident only to cause another. For, as all experienced drivers will know, you never swerve where there is any chance of involving even greater loss of life or risk of injury to third parties.

Ultimately, the robot cannot act like some selfish human and save its own (and its driver’s) life but take the course of least collateral damage. That, however, may not be much of a sales pitch for a machine that, one assumes, is being marketed as able to protect our lives!

We would require robots to be able to engage completely in the human conversation, whether figuratively or actually. It must be able to handle illogical argument and inconsistent behaviour. But what happens when a computer can do this? Could it become as illogical and inconsistent as humans?

For me, the overarching impression of this ‘driverless car race’ reminds me of being an 11-year-old glued to a black-and-white television for the live moon landings of July 1969 and watching two supermen, Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, walking on another ‘planet’. This momentous event ably supported by the original Star Trek sci-fi series being screened at the time, led not only impressionable children into thinking that humans were now not far away from seeing colonies of people inhabiting new worlds.

As we know, it didn’t happen but why not? Because that was part of the ‘arms race’ and, now the Cold War is over, there’s no military imperative to keep investing in that particular technology.

I believe the same holds true for autonomous vehicles – they will only work, and be made to work, if there is a strong financial imperative. For while we’re in the ‘driverless car race’ right now, there’s always the chance, in future, fully autonomous vehicles as mobility solutions may end up steering down the same path as moon walks and the jet-pack!

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