Blog: Dave LeggettAutonomous cars?

Dave Leggett | 26 October 2009

Advances in modern technology are making many things possible. Mostly, the enhancements to the way we lead our lives that are made possible by technological wizardry are a good thing. Sometimes they are not.

I don't much fancy giving up control of my car in order to be driven in autopilot inches from the car in front in a road train. Being in the slipstream like that might conserve fuel, but it doesn't sound like fun does it? Yes, we do get in planes that 'fly by wire' and cruise control is generally a good thing, but moving at speed inches from the car in front, trusting the technology to that extent, sounds hairy to me.

Okay, let's assume I'm being a bit of a wuss and that this is something that simply takes some getting used to and that eventually you are quite comfortable with it. There's something else to consider: just think of the legal issues regarding responsibility for the vehicle. The half-and-half solution in which you cede control of your car for part of the journey is particularly muddled. Imagine the fun and games at the 'transfer' moments.

'Autonomous vehicles' in the way Robbie G describes it, sounds like a complete non-starter to me.

Surely the research would be better applied to intelligent shuttle buses that are an extension to public transport systems, leaving the private car alone? 

Sure, we've all been on journeys when we'd prefer to take our hands off the wheel and read a newspaper. I am not disagreeing with that. I quite like taking the train sometimes. I have been on buses before. I like driving cars, but long journeys on motorways can be draining. Driving a car in a congested city is rarely fun. This technology would be far better taken to its logical conclusion – the vehicle takes you from the start of the journey to your destination.

The technology underlying autonomous vehicles can take us a massive step further by adding door-to-door transportation in a specially designed and dedicated vehicle (it wouldn't even need a steering wheel and would be designed to be in passenger, not driving, mode all the time – so you could have an interior especially designed for that).

At a stroke the legal issues associated with losing driver control of a private car are gone. In this scenario the vehicle and the infrastructure is provided by a public transportation authority. That would also probably reassure people that there were reasonably robust systems in place to make the technology reliable. There would undoubtedly be huge economies of scale in buying and running a fleet of these things.

The vehicles could also be calibrated to journey demand for maximum operational efficiency. If eight people are headed in a certain direction, an appropriately sized vehicle rocks up outside the door, alerting your cell phone when it is in position. Vehicle occupancy should be relatively high – no more big buses with one or two people on them - making CO2 output per head lower. A smart operating system is permanently calculating optimal passenger pick-ups and drop-offs. In this scenario, the technology basically replaces buses with smaller and more efficient units better calibrated to passenger journeys and numbers. No more buses running in packs or getting rained on at the bus stop.

Okay, I hear you ask, have you been on a typical city bus lately? After you have successfully dodged the knife wielding hoodie, ignored the random musings of the swaying drunk and avoided the fresh chewing gum stuck to the floor, that seat on the bus isn't such an attractive place.

True. But you could always be in control and take the car, instead. The choice is yours.

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