The government has announced that it wants to start testing driverless cars on public roads by the end of 2019. Crucially, it wants to do so without using human supervisors. This is part of a broader plan to bring the technology to the country in full by 2021. But are politicians and tech giants playing with our safety?
What Is A Driverless Car?
It sounds self-explanatory, but defining precisely what a driverless vehicle is has proven controversial. For instance, automotive companies have been accused of using misleading language in their marketing. The terms ‘autonomous’ and ‘driverless’ are used almost interchangeably. Tesla, and its charismatic CEO Elon Musk, have repeatedly claimed that their cars can drive without human intervention. Musk claimed that the technology would be ready by 2017 and that all of Tesla’s models would have the necessary hardware to enable the driverless function; this technology has yet to appear. In fact, its driverless option has now disappeared from its website. Techemergence has said of the issue “‘Self-driving’ is a rather vague term with a vague meaning.”
Many cars now have ‘autonomous’ features. They can keep in lane, change lanes and even park themselves. However, these functions are largely confined to the likes of motorways and highways. Crucially, they still require the driver to be alert and to have their hands on the wheel. A truly ‘driverless’ car would be able to function 100% without human intervention as it travelled from point ‘A’ to ‘B.’ The industry usually uses 5 levels of automation to determine how self-driving a vehicle really is. The highest, level 5, represents full automation.
What Is The Government Planning?
The testing of ‘driverless’ vehicles has been fairly limited in Europe. Even in America, testing has been relatively contained. The cars are usually supervised by a human occupant who can intervene as and when required. Major set backs, such as a woman being struck and killed in Arizona, have forced the likes of Google and Uber to scale back testing on public roads. A number of surveys and opinion polls have also discovered widespread distrust of the technology.
This is why the government’s plans are so ambitious. It wants to test cars on public roads, amongst regular traffic, without steering wheels or human supervisors. According to the Department of Transport, the testing will allow the UK to lead the way in developing the technology. In a statement the Transport Secretary, Jesse Norman, said “thanks to the UK’s world class research base, this country is in the vanguard of the development of new transport technologies, including automation.” He added, “the government is supporting the safe, transparent trialling of this pioneering technology, which could transform the way we travel.”
Is The Public’s Safety Being Played With?
One thing all the major car manufacturers and government seem to agree on is that driverless cars will revolutionise society and transportation. The reasons for this are difficult to gauge, but the general consensus is that it’ll mean more efficient, quicker and safer ways of getting around. The problem is, the technology is no where near ready; it simply doesn’t exist yet and, most likely, won’t for some time.
The trouble with innovation is that it’s so often used for the wrong reasons. Companies want to be the first to perfect technology and governments want to be the first to utilise it. Why? Because progress is popular in abstract. It’s associated with wealth and success. In terms of driverless cars, however, no one’s really asked the question ‘do we really need them and do we need them now?’ You see, the great challenge isn’t simply to create a vehicle that can drive as well as a human-directed vehicle. The challenge is to create a vehicle that is superior to those that require a driver. This is an exceptionally difficult goal.
As it stands, driverless cars face all sorts of practical problems. They basically shut down in inclement weather (it interferes with their sensors), need access to very well-maintained road markings and, all too often, a human to guide them through tricky situations. Even with supervisors accidents can and do happen; the driverless car that killed a pedestrian in Arizona had a supervisor inside it at the time. There are also major hacking concerns, as driverless cars will basically be prime targets for a variety of cyber criminals.
Things To Think About
Here are just a few of the problems driverless cars face…
1) They struggle to contend with crowed inner-city environments (where most them would be employed commercially)
2) Sensors and navigation systems are thus far unable to deal with variable weather conditions
3) Avoidance of obstacles requires very particular programming. For instance, a car that can avoid a pedestrian might not always be able to avoid a child or animal.
4) A vast amount of changes to road infrastructure will be probably be required for mass-use.
5) Exceptionally high-quality maps that are always up-to-date will be needed.
6) There are enormous legal and legislative issues to resolve. For example, will the car’s manufacturer be considered to be the ‘driver’ in the event of a crash?
7) The vehicles will need to be able to make ethical decisions. Who’s to decide what these are? For instance, in the event of an unavoidable crash should the vehicle protect the vehicle’s occupants at the expense of others (even if that means inflicting more damage / injuries / fatalities)?
The Price Of Innovation
Whilst it’s almost certain that cars will continue to come with more and more autonomous features, we’re unlikely to see Level 5 Autonomy for many years yet. That the government wants to go all in with testing unsupervised vehicles demonstrates an almost unquestioning faith in the technology and, whilst innovation never comes without risks, those that get hurt or worse are almost never those who signed up to the decision in the first place…