Would you trust your car to drive itself? Google is asking the populations of two states in the US to take that chance. The robot taxi, common in science fiction since the 1950s, is now set to become a reality.
The fully autonomous Google car has passed the legal hurdles for use on the roads of Nevada and California after hundreds of thousands of hours’ testing through cities and traffic. Now RobotCar UK is set to follow suit. The team at Oxford University led by Prof Paul Newman has equipped a Nissan LEAF electric car with lasers and cameras and stuffed a computer in the boot. First they drive it manually to construct a sensor map of the road and its surroundings. Next time it can travel that route in driverless mode.
Some fear that autonomous cars will take away their liberty and individuality. The ad for the 2011 Dodge Charger car plays on this. It depicts a near future in which robots are doing everything for us. The main character asserts his masculinity by ripping the head off a robot driver while the voiceover says, “robots can take our clothes, our food and our homes but they will never take our cars”. He then drives off aggressively at high speed.
Proponents like Prof Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University argue that robot cars will dramatically reduce the number of deaths on the road by using their sensors to detect other cars and pedestrians quicker and more reliably than a human driver and manoeuvre to avoid them. A robot car will not get distracted by the attractive woman across the road or the screaming child in the back seat and it won’t get sleepy.
This is a major justification to let robots take over the driving wheel. But trooper Chuck Allen from the Nevada Highway Patrol says that “when you factor in the safety of others by having mechanical devices dictate your speed and thoroughfare, yes it does cause some concern”. It is too early to tell yet if driverless cars will save more lives or cause more accidents and we will not know for some time.
Newman is optimistic that if the developments are taken slowly and incrementally, they will be safer. That is certainly what he is planning for the UK. He does not see a sudden step change in transport. The RobotCar will only take over on short stretches of road for now or in tedious traffic jams. His cautious approach is wise. One serious accident would set robot cars back a long way.
And who will be accountable if there is an accident? The philosopher Colin Allen, from Indiana University, wants to see each robot vehicle fitted with the type of “black box” found on commercial planes to keep a record of all of the software, sensor and position data. Drivers would also have to provide ID to the black box before driving. All of this information would be legally available to the courts and insurance companies in the event of an accident or traffic violation.
One great advantage of the autonomous car we shouldn’t overlook is that it could greatly help those who are physically disabled or partially sighted. Newman tells me: “I would dearly love my father, for example, to not be worried about dependency on others for transport. Seems to me that just when folk most need freedom of movement we make it too hard for them.”
If the robot car can genuinely cut down on fatal road accidents and let granny drive when she is over 100, we need to take these developments very seriously.
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