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Why I’m Uncomfortable About Driverless Cars

Driverless-Car-AboveThe automotive news overseas is humming about how Ford  has just managed to put its driverless cars through its paces in a model city in snowy conditions. This is a big breakthrough for the world of driverless cars, because snowy conditions usually send the LIDAR (like radar but using lasers) sensors that make driverless cars “aware” of their situation berserk. To say nothing of what snowy conditions do to your traction when cornering or braking.

I’m not comfortable with the idea of driverless cars. This is not because I’m a technophobic Luddite (now there’s some big words for you to start the year off). It’s more because I spend a lot of time behind a computer and I know all too well that computers don’t always do what you want them to do. They stop working for mysterious reasons. They get too clever for their own good and try to do things that you don’t want them to (such as the time that my son borrowed my smartphone to check his Facebook feed, with the result that all his friends ended up on my contact list and I pocket-dialled them). Even those super-smart algorithms that customise the ads you get on social media make mistaken guesses about the sort of thing I am likely to buy (I’m already with that bank and I have bought my first home, thank you. And I am not interested in a university course. Or special offers on sunglasses. Or weird old tips.). So I can just imagine how things can go wrong with a driverless car.

This is especially the case if said driverless car is plugged into the sat-nav or GPS system. I’ve heard stories about navigations systems that have decided that the most efficient way to go is to take a 4×4 track that is marked as an official road but is only open for a handful of months a year, or decides to send you down a road that was permanently closed last year (and the system doesn’t know it). And what about all those stories from the UK about delivery trucks getting stuck in tiny old alleyways that barely fit a little wee Fiat 500?

So you can imagine what would happen with a driverless car. What if it decides that the best way to get to the shops is via the local golf course? What if it suddenly crashes like all computers do in the middle of a busy intersection?

The inventors, designers and legislators agree with me, too. Just last month in the US (in California, of course), the Department of Motor Vehicles decreed that all driverless cars must also have traditional controls, rather than the no-steering wheel, no-pedal Google prototype. In addition, the same governing body said that responsibility for crashes and traffic violations will still be squarely on the shoulders of the “driver” of the driverless car.Gov. Brown Signs Legislation At Google HQ That Allows Testing Of Autonomous Vehicles

As for the inventors, one of Toyota’s inventors who just landed a nice big funding packet, Daniela Rus, points out that there are tons of things that robots and artificial intelligence can’t do for you, as they don’t have the sensitivity. Heavy weather like fog, snow and torrential rain is still an issue for driverless cars – which is why Ford was so thrilled about getting a driverless car to work in the snow – and so is heavy traffic.

The place where driverless cars are really likely to stuff up is in shared spaces. Shared spaces, as covered in one of my posts last year, are where pedestrians and cars aren’t in separated zones but share the same bit of “road”. This helps with road safety, as drivers (and pedestrians) have to stay fully alert to what and who’s around them, and use a bit of courtesy and common sense to avoid collisions. In situations like these, drivers and pedestrians communicate in subtle and very, very human ways: a quick cock of the head to one side, a raised eyebrow, a glare, a smile, a brief hand gesture…  Computers, even the most sophisticated, just can’t handle these things. They may be able to recognise your face in a crowd but they can’t recognise your emotions. These shared spaces are becoming more common in town plans, just to make things more interesting.

Driverless cars also have trouble with other places where humans or other sentient beings have overridden the norm. They won’t spot the line of ducks or the boneheaded spaniel on the road ahead. They don’t really know how to tackle the situation commonly encountered on a country road where a farmer is moving stock along the road. Around town, cops on point duty when the traffic lights have failed, a ball bouncing into the road closely followed by a crazy kid, a pedestrian suddenly stepping out, the road works crew’s hand signals and the local school crossing are all things that autonomous cars (to give them their official name) can’t really cope with.

Yes, I know jumbo jets fly on autopilot around the world all the time. However, I also know that jumbo jets with autopilot function (i.e. all of them) have a pilot-in-charge and two back up copilots on hand, all of whom have trained for much, much longer than the typical driver has, just in case things go wrong.

Anyway, where’s the fun in a driverless car?

Safe and happy driving (computers don’t get the “happy” bit),


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  1. arthur nommensen says:

    Yesterday my Tesla S model drove itself on “autopilot” all the M1 highway distance there and back Brisbane to Maroochydore. It requires me to tough the steering wheel occasionally to reassure it that I am there. My wife says it is a better driver than I in maintaining lane safety, and she relaxes. It is very definitely safer than humans at the wheel.

    So please do not think it is maybe coming soon from maybe Ford or GM or Mercedes etc. It is already here in about 1000 Tesla cars on Aussie roads, and about 50,000 cars on US roads, and it is good.

    January 22nd, 2016 at 11:02 am

  2. Lindsey says:

    Yes;Driverless pedestrians (face down buried in smartphone) something no computor can comprehend. About as sensible as FAQ’ssupplying customer service. Fun in a car,that was withdrawn many years ago,about the same time tool kits were removed from boots. Where is the “Fun” when an average speed is less than 20 kmh,try explaining to the revuenewer(used to be police) that you were enjoying the cornering capabilities of your car. Yes,the “Driver” of driverless car shall be held responsible for everything. Why have cars if you cannot fine someone,computor losing points?
    Bring ’em on I say

    January 22nd, 2016 at 4:07 pm