There is some very clever technology already being fitted to cars that can assist the driver, enhance the driving experience and improve safety. Is parallel parking a bit of a bind? No longer driver; hit a button and let the car do the onerous steering wheel work and take care of those tricky angles. And now bay parking is coming with assist, too, so you can always be properly centred in the parking space. Ah, the marvels of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). And much more is coming with sophisticated things like adaptive cruise control systems that will allow lane change, and traffic jam assist that will mean you can trust the car to take control in urban environments at low speeds. Hmm, trust…

A shocking video has emerged that highlights a very fundamental issue: Automated systems, impressively smart though they undoubtedly are, still have to interact with humans. In the video below, a group of people are apparently part of a demonstration of a Volvo car’s latest safety system. But there is a big problem. They (and, one presumes, the driver) appear to believe that the car is fitted with a pedestrian detection system and will therefore not run them down. Their faith is mistaken and the car fails to stop before hitting them (thankfully, no-one seriously hurt).

So, the question is: just what is the car fitted with and how will such systems work in practice? Would you really pay extra for the sensors and clever algorithms that can recognise a person or bicycle rather than a bigger vehicle or obstacle? And would you trust the technology 100%? (possibly a nominal issue for emergency braking that is applied in extremis, but not necessarily merely a nominal issue if you are parallel parking in a busy street with children playing). Just where are the anomalies? What about the ten-million-to-one chance scenarios that the sensors might misread? Should we simply accept the statistical anomalies or ‘outliers’ in the context of the greater good and overall lives saved and lower injuries from accidents? You might not say yes to that if the car you are at the wheel of has ploughed into a bus stop queue while you are checking your FB status (your car successfully avoided the stationary car in front, but the clever algorithms could not negotiate a no-collision solution and took the car off-road; how could it weigh up the human toll from different accident scenarios?). 

The technology rollout, let’s remember, is piecemeal, bit by bit. As the systems become available after rigorous testing, they are being added to new vehicles, with the approval of regulators. But clearly, people need to be aware of the limitations and boundaries of such systems. It will be a mixed picture, some vehicles fitted with sophisticated systems, some fitted with less sophisticated systems and some not fitted with much at all. It’s potentially a recipe for misperception and some confusion (“I thought the car was fitted with traffic jam assist, but it’s not…er, sorry for the rear-ender”).

The long transition from human control to autonomous control, if that’s what we are facing (Tesla’s Elon Musk neatly sums up the numbers in here), will not be a perfect or rapid one. Fully human-controlled vehicles will remain in use for many years to come, the vehicle parc in advanced countries gradually seeing an infusion of vehicles that come with increasing levels of ADAS technologies. The transition presents opportunities, of course, for reduced accidents, the human error element reduced (insurance markets are already being impacted by some of this).

However, it will not be a seamless transition. Regulators and vehicle makers will need to take great care to ensure that the interface between these advanced technologies and the human – whether nominally responsible for driving the car or an innocent pedestrian – is as controlled, risk-free and as smooth as it can possibly be. And a starting point will be ensuring that the operation of automated systems is idiot proof and that the driver understands exactly what the car is fitted with. Pedestrians, of course, should still employ the precautionary principle until the vehicle parc is 100% autonomous and accidents really are unheard of. And, even then, maybe trust your instinct when crossing the road.

“Just stand there and we’ll show you how pedestrian detection works.” Er, well, actually, no thanks.