Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Autonomous Vehicles Being Trialled in Britain

The UK is aiming to become a hub for driverless car technology, and has sought to iron out the obvious legal and regulatory issues prior to the technology becoming widespread.

I am going to use the word "moron" a lot. This is not a pejorative. Everyone is a moron behind the wheel. Humans are not evolved to process information fast enough, for long enough, to drive safely. We have significant blind spots and cannot see anything at all during saccades, the brain instead approximates, which explains why people often fail to see oncoming cyclists or motorcyclists and even cars, and pull out in front of them at junctions, often fatally. They genuinely, honestly didn't see. We evolved to over-react to surprising movement in peripheral vision, such as a cyclists passing quite safely on the drivers' side in a queue of stationary traffic, which triggers an involuntary endocrine response of cortisol and adrenaline, which cause stress and make drivers angry and aggressive towards cyclists. This in turn makes them drive faster and less carefully, because these hormones affect risk-perception. Driving is boring, dangerous and stressful; a significant contributor through that cortisol and adrenaline not subsequently 'burned off' through exercise, to obesity. It's enormously fatiguing on the brain, reducing productivity during the day.

Even if you think you are a "good" driver, this is only relative. You're not. Consider this: Racing drivers are people who do have better car control, and more practised reactions behind the wheel. They are not considered good insurance risks. Attitude is more important than risk. You want to enjoy the thrill of speed, driving a vehicle. As soon as they are available, the insurance industry will quickly price human driving off the road, effectively forcing driving enthusiasts to get their fix on a race-track. After all, why should other road users who're just trying to get to work bear unnecessary extra risk for what will be soon after cars can drive themselves, a hobby? This requires remarkably little legislation; just a bit of thought now, and the market and technology to do the rest.

People are suspicious of new technology, and over-rate (often grossly) their own competence behind the wheel, and feeling in control is not the same as being in control, morons don't realise this. Insurance companies, who rely on statistics rather than rules of thumb which evolved to help bands of hunter-gatherers on the African Savannah, are comfortable with underwriting risk, once driverless cars are seen as more competent than morons. The liability in the event of a crash, the single obstacle cited most often by morons objecting to this technology, has already pretty much been solved. The driver will carry liability, for the car he's travelling in, as now. Perhaps there will be some shared liability with the manufacturers in the event of software failure, another risk massively over-stated by morons, as they don't notice the software currently keeping them on the road in their car, right now. But it matters little because the insurance industry has indicated it is happy to wear the risk, because they assess it will be less expensive to have fallible robots controlling 1.5 tons of metal at 70mph, than human morons.

Surveys that say half of people would feel unsafe driving with autonomous cars on the road, and a quarter would never get in one are unsurprising. People are morons because they use inaccurate heuristics to calculate risk. Heuristics which worked for our ancestors, but which are inadequate for the modern world. I, reasonably feel unsafe around morons driving, and welcome technology which will take my life out of morons' hands and also their lives out of mine for I am too a moron behind the wheel. The views of morons who've never considered the issue can be ignored. Once they see autonomous vehicles work, and realise they can read a book, masturbate, or watch telly on the way to work or sleep rather than struggling to stay awake on a long motorway drive, they will quickly accept it.

Google's driverless car, which cannot yet tell a scrunched up paper from rock, or recognise temporary signs, has had two crashes in the 700,000 autonomous miles (as at mid 2014) driven, but were being driven manually both times. In Google's words, the car is already driving better than a tired or drunk human. And by 2017, they aim to make it better than the best driver in the world.

Coventry and Milton Keynes are testing the Lutz driverless pods which will initially run on separate paths before being integrated onto the roads. Finally Greenwich will trial passenger shuttles which look like big golf buggys. Not all driverless cars will make you look a wanker, though. Bristol's Venturer consortium is testing a BAE Systems wildcat, which is probably the hairiest-chested vehicle on the roads, and these are looking at congestion reduction and interactions with other road users.

The implications of driverless cars will be enormous. Some implications are obvious. It will first be employed to replace commercial vehicles, reducing cost of transporting goods and facilitating just in time delivery. Bulk freight may well be moved by long trains of autonomous lorries, saving fuel which can break up nearer destinations.  Car ownership may well be reduced, as urban journeys in one's own car are replaced by commuting in pods which pick you up as needed. The space not needed for on-street parking may well yield more road space to cyclists and pedestrians. Equally, the prospect of having a car drop the children at school, swing by the shops to have pre-ordered deliveries loaded into the boot, and return might yield more, not fewer vehicles on the roads.

It is likely autonomous vehicles will encourage urban sprawl and long commutes as the commute becomes productive, or relaxing rather than stressful. This may change the design of cities in ways we cannot predict. Just as horses and cyclists' mass lobbies gave way to the motor car, autonomous vehicles will almost certainly kill the driving lobby and accelerate the move back to "liveable cities" perhaps cities will become like fried eggs with a "liveable" urban core, surrounded by autonomous-vehicle friendly suburban sprawl. Maybe bigger cities will be amoeba with several urban cores, with a cytoplasm of sprawling suburbs. Who knows. What is certain, when I'm cycling, I'd rather share my road with a robot, designed specifically to see me, than with the kind of arsehole who thinks buying a BMW is in any way acceptable behaviour.

I yearn for this technology. Because most of my driving is long-distance, and frankly I'd rather be reading a book than stare at the back of a Vauxall Zafira at 70mph for 90 minutes. And who, really, honestly enjoys a long slog up the motorway?



5 comments:

Luke said...

The "who is liable for a crash?" point is, as you say, the daftest one. Practical answer answer - an insurance company, like now.

Longer answer - we'll have the black box data to work out exactly what happened, rather than human witnesses. And since the controls are meant to make it impossible to crash into a pedestrian or cyclist, it's always the driver/computer's fault if the vehicle hits a cyclist or pedestrian.

Luke said...

Have you heard the theory that if controls are really that good at avoiding pedestrians, we'll all start wandering into the road? That will bring urban traffic to a halt, so we will end up with controls on jaywalking (and possibly cycling) as in the US.

Anonymous said...

You bastards will just get worse, not content with cycling on the pavement tight into the corner so no-one can see you, cycling at 14 mph on pavements, 2 mph in bus lanes, 45 mph downhill without a hope in hell in stopping, riding straight through lines of pedestrians on crossing, weaving around traffic cones against the traffic flow during road works and generally making a nuisance of yourselves to every single other road user, you will no doubt start flinging yourselves under the wheels of these cars, 'knowing' that they will stop and save you, whilst flinging the unsuspecting occupant through the windscreen.

Roll on the 'autonomous' bike, got to be a lot smarter than the cycling clowns we have now.

Jackart said...

Anon. It takes a special kind of Moron to think cyclists pose a greater risk to pedestrians than cars. I pity you.

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