Tuesday 10 June 2014

Driverless Cars

Cars which can drive themselves have long been a feature of science fiction; in fact the concept goes back virtually to the invention of the motor car. However the practical obstacles, as well as health and safety concerns, means that it is only in recent years that anything close to practical designs have emerged. One of the first licensed to take to the public roads is the Google Car and it has just been launched, see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/news/10885236/Googles-driverless-cars-to-be-allowed-on-roads-after-ministers-rewrite-Highway-Code.html. You might think this is to be expected because driving is so easy for a human to learn; and of course aircraft and ships have been fitted with automatic controls for many decades now. However automating a car is far more difficult; it requires very sophisticated electronics to safely and effectively reproduce the cognitive processes involved in driving. There are two basic models for the introduction of driverless cars. The first is slightly easier technologically, but far harder in terms of organization, this would be where an entire highway is converted, in a single phase, from a regular road into a system solely for automated transport. The individual vehicles would all be controlled by a single database and each one would be logged into an overarching traffic control grid. Some railways are operated like this, not just driverless ones like the Docklands Light Railway, see: http://hpanwo-tv.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/robots.html. On such a network all the traffic would have to be automated and the vehicles' occupants would not have the option of manually controlling their charges if they wanted to. The second model is to leave the roads as they are and instead build cars that are individually capable of everything a human driver can do. In this case there would be no supervising database at all, just normal roads which could be navigated autonomously by these mechanical roadsters. In this case vehicle users could choose whether they wished to use the automated control or not, and could switch to manual control and drive themselves if they preferred. There could also be a dual system whereby the driver could hand over some of the driving to the computer and manage the rest himself. In a way this kind of function can already be found in existing cars with cruise control, auto-stability and lane keeping. A more sophisticated version could be the driver, who might want to rest his feet, opting to handle the steering while the automated system adjusts the accelerator and brakes.

The advantages of automated cars are obvious. Computers react faster than humans and so would be far better at emergency stops and avoiding collisions; there would be fewer road traffic accidents and therefore less death and injury, as well as lower insurance costs. Traffic could be managed far better and congestion reduced, especially with the first model of automation. Also with the first model, you could have far higher speed limits and smaller stopping-distance gaps between moving vehicles; this is a far more efficient use of the roads. Cars on a motorway could drive along at a hundred miles per hour with no more space needed between their bumpers than that between the carriages of a train. Many car travellers might enjoy being excused the chores of driving and navigation; they could relax and play a game, like the people in the illustration at the top, or even go to sleep. There would no longer be the need for qualifications; children and blind people could drive them. Also you could get as drunk as you like down the pub and still drive home without any additional danger at all, short of falling over while stepping out onto the pavement. In urban locations you wouldn't need to hunt for parking places any more; you could get your car to drop you off and then drive home and come back later; or cruise round the block until you need it again, at which point you could summon it using a radio signal. You could even go shopping while the car takes itself off to the garage for its MOT.
However there is a dark side to this driverless cars stuff that my conspira-dar has detected. Would you want to forfeit control of your personal transport to a machine? What about the civil liberties angle? This would become especially relevant with the first model; or if a time comes with the second model when automation is so common that the safety and efficiency disadvantages of manual driving are emphasized to a point where there are calls for it to be legally restricted. Jeremy Clarkson will be hopping mad! This situation has been envisaged by Arthur C Clarke in his book Profiles of the Future (Victor Gollancz 1961). A lot of people are concerned that government intelligence agencies can track your movements by the sat-nav in your car, this is true; but with automation they could do a great deal more than just track you, they could take over the controls! Your car would become a vehicle that you only enjoyed conditional dominion over. In its mildest form it could, for instance, mean that visitors to Nevada could no longer travel down the Groom Lake Road to the border of Area 51 because the database would "lock" it to any unauthorized road transport. There's a direct parallel here with digital TV. Digital TV was promoted as something wonderful, and in many ways it is. It allows more TV programmes and channels with far better quality sound and vision, but the downside is the fact that it gives the broadcaster more control over what individual TV set owners can watch, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.co.uk/2007/12/digital-tv.html. In a similar way this is the catch when it comes to automatic cars, not to mention the loss of jobs and the destruction of professions like bus and lorry driving; also the hazards associated with the automatic driving appliances and databases breaking down. This could paralyze an entire transport network and cause chaos which would be very difficult to repair. It could also result in crashes that could kill and maim many passengers. In an ideal world, naturally the automatic car would be a wonderful piece of technology for the reasons I state, but the world we live in is not ideal; it is controlled by forces of authority that have selfish and malevolent intentions. We therefore need to think twice before we agree to automated cars.

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