The Danger of Autonomous Cars

Autonomous Cars – embracing the inevitable

Let’s face it, we all dream about it but know it can’t happen – a self driving car! Yet, this is on the cards. Mercedes, Kia, Toyota, Ford, Audio, BMW, Volvo, you name it, they all have a car which can drive autonomously. “Not on our roads though” say the authorities.

It wasn’t that long ago that our great-grandfather was told never to drive faster than 100 m.p.h. because the blood would leave his body. In those days 40 m.p.h. was classified as breathtaking. Now we have Andy Green in his ThrustSSC breaking the sound barrier. He might have been white as a sheet when he cruised to a halt but his blood flow was normal and his body parts were still intact. Of course we digress but isn’t this what science is about – proving it wrong!

Autonomous or rather automated vehicles which require external and environmental assistance through usually magnetic strips and road navigation transponders is not something new, in fact was on the drawing board in the early 1980s. However, with smaller, faster and more reliable computers, highly sophisticated sensor systems and state of the art electro-mechanical output devices we have come to a cross-roads – cars which are driven near autonomously and when to mass manufacture? Only time can tell although major manufacturers already talk about the latter part of this decade, some as near as 2017. Unfortunately all of this will come to a nought, we believe, because of the road traffic authorities. Actually more so, the fraternity of global electronic engineers all shake their heads in disapproval. The thing is, we can fly an aircraft totally unmanned only because there are critical backup and redundant systems in place, not many obstacles to bump into and even less corners to negotiate. Motor cars are on land, they rely on absolutely accurate input data at all times and last but not least, the critical thinking aspect to this entire exercise, no errors or hardware failure. And this is where we have a problem. Imagine driving merrily along at 70 m.p.h when a sensor fails, the radar decides to stop working or the computer decides to reboot (unlikely but who knows).  The global think tank may be right.

Control freaks will never let go of the steering wheel. They are also some of the world’s worst drivers. Every year hundreds of thousands of people, pedestrians, drivers, occupants, (animals too) are killed on our roads. Traffic authorities have all but given up. What percentage is caused by driver failure?

Partially automated vehicles already protect the occupants of a vehicle when crossing lanes inadvertently, applying brakes when needed, stabilising a vehicle which may be on the verge of rollover and preventing unnecessary skidding.  So why can’t they be made to drive the occupants to a destination without driver intervention?  Because it cannot. It’s called the unknowns. What happens if?

Interesting to note that driverless cars use the cloud but flight MH370 didn’t. Losing communication to the driverless car may make it pull over to the side of the road and stop. What happens if the side of the road happens to be a cliff, dropping 300m to the sea or a rocky outcrop? No thanks. Although the same electronic engineers designing the workings of your trusty four wheeled carriage will swear to the reliability, they are the first to banish the notion of driverless cars. Quite rightly.

Autonomous Cars – if the roads allow it

Just as one was told that you may drive safely but not necessarily the “other” driver so it just so happens to be the reason why driverless cars may be on the drawing board and even successfully tested, it’s the “other” car that remains the problem. Just because the roads in Sweden and Germany are better than most third world countries makes the very idea of driving the Yungas without a steering wheel a frightening thought.

But no, as a matter of fact we do believe that driverless cars are here to stay. We do believe that if the road is not safe the driverless car will stop and tell you that you are on your own. If a machine which has proven to have more powerful thought processes than the driver’s brain pulls over because it is not safe then believe me, you are not safe.

Many years ago most drivers took to the roads because of the pleasure of it. Nowadays it’s a case of whether you will make it back alive. We cannot blame the authorities neither can we blame the electronic, automotive and mechanical engineers. Unfortunately scientists and engineers alike know that we can no longer rely on the human element, there has to come a stage where there is forced intervention. We can only blame ourselves. The authorities and engineers shouldn’t put a ban on it but embrace it.