In 1896 the US state of Vermont passed a law, which would require: “all motorists piloting their ‘horseless carriages’, upon chance encounters with cattle or livestock” to: (1) immediately stop the vehicle, (2) “immediately and as rapidly as possible … disassemble the automobile”, and (3) “conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes” until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified.
Similarly, at around the same era in the United Kingdom, the ‘Locomotive Acts’ were instigated, requiring “self-propelled vehicles to be led by a pedestrian waving a red flag or carrying a lantern to warn bystanders of the vehicle’s approach…”
Both these laws are historical examples of the problems caused when new technology is being introduced, and by necessity, having to share the public highway with existing forms of transportation.
The inevitable introduction of driverless cars will almost certainly see such contentious conflicts of cultures on many levels, obviously from a road safety point of view, and not least politically.
Those who see this progress as leading down the highway to hell might point out just a few of the potential problems that may well occur when driverless cars, and indeed automated heavy goods vehicles, share the road networks with humans behind their steering wheels:
The legal minefield
The compensation fraud ‘cash for crash’ is a bad enough problem for insurance companies already, when two or more human parties’ vehicles collide. Regardless of innocent accident or criminal intent, can you imagine the traffic jam of litigation snarling up the courts when a driverless car collides with a school bus? It would almost certainly be human error on the part of the bus driver that caused such a collision, as robot cars will have sensors to avoid hitting other vehicles. But what happens when a driver says that the robot car made a sudden stop with a clear road ahead? Such glitches will be inevitable, because technology is never perfect.
And who will sue whom when such a collision happens? The owner of the robot vehicle, or the manufacturer? The manufacturer will probably say that the latest software update wasn’t applied, so the owner is at fault. The owner will argue that they thought the patch had been applied at the last service. It doesn’t bear thinking about, unless you’re a ‘no-win no-fee’ lawyer!
Passengers in driverless cars will probably be safer than when driven by fellow humans, but inevitably there will be unusual situations. Think about a robot car suddenly breaking down in lane two of a motorway, and a 44 ton truck rear-ends it at 50mph. Sure enough, these incidents happen now all the time, but if a driver behind a wheel feels that something is wrong, especially in an internal combustion vehicle, there is usually the opportunity to pull over into the hard shoulder or at least apply the hazard lights before the vehicle grinds to a halt.
Forget using a wire coat-hanger or a screwdriver to steal an old wreck, criminals are already learning how to steal the most modern luxury cars with a laptop and a phone or a TV remote control.
Consider a robot van full of laptops, phones and valuables that has been hacked to park itself and unlock next to a criminal’s van on a motorway service station? Two minutes and the deed is done, hundreds of thousands worth of products stolen, and nobody gets hurt. At least it’s necessary to either bribe, tie up or knock out a human delivery driver, so when crime is seen is ‘victimless’ and ‘white collar’, it’s more likely to be committed by people who wouldn’t normally hurt a fly.
The potential for cyber warfare and terrorist activity to bring a whole country to a standstill is also much more achievable when it comes to leaving things in the custody of machines.
Inevitably, the benefits will certainly outweigh these problems…
The road to utopia, however, is almost certainly achievable. It will probably exist when, in the fullness of time, driverless vehicles are almost exclusive, the need for conventional cars becomes redundant, when ‘petrol-head’ enthusiasts drive their rare vintage internal combustion cars for sport, for fun, on tracks or off-road. At this point, the possibilities for a much brighter future are exciting.
No clogged up residential streets
When driverless cars become commonplace, the need to have one parked outside your house, or even to own one yourself, will probably be redundant. Instead, it would be like booking or hailing a taxi to come to your house within a given timeframe. Passengers would share or have exclusive rides, paying per distance or per hour. Every village, town and city will probably have parking areas of differing sizes just outside the residential area. These ranging from say 20 or 30 spaces for a sleepy countryside village to car parks the size of airports outside conurbations.
These car parks would be ‘charging stations’ whereby the cars clipped in to the battery charger in each space as they parked.
The result would be that residential streets would be almost clear of parked cars. A cyclists’ idea of heaven. Trees could be replanted for aesthetics and carbon reduction, children could play outside in the street… The possibilities are endless and highly positive.
Traffic flow improves vastly
With fewer vehicles on the roads, and those vehicles not colliding with each other, taking wrong turns, ‘rubbernecking’ to stare at accidents on opposite carriageways, the potential for traffic flow will be vastly improved. Processions of electric cars will be akin to trains or trams. No traffic lights will be required, no horrendous queues at junctions and roundabouts due to hesitant drivers, nor collisions from those who pull out impatiently. Journey times will decrease and become considerably more predictable.
As driverless electric car technology and renewable energy sources improve apace, combined with no need to own a vehicle, it isn’t difficult to imagine the benefits. Clean air for a start. Deliveries to peoples’ homes by driverless vans or mini-vehicles, even drones, means the need for fewer journeys in any case.
The amount of litter and plastic waste that finds its way into watercourses is stunning. A lot of it is deposited on motorway and road verges. Thoughtless drivers throw tons of litter per year out of car windows. Hundreds and thousands of municipal working hours are dedicated to cleaning up. If a passenger in a driverless car has a recycle bin in the vehicle, emptied at the charging station every day, there would be no need to throw anything out of a car.
From the need to use and recycle fewer tyres, to the vast reduction in burning fossil fuels, there’s little doubt that the world would be a cleaner place. Spin off benefits might include electric, driverless ’come-to-you’ cabs that have an easy-access bicycle rack, the last part of a journey could therefore be pedalled, even further removing the need for snarled up town centres, making people fitter and healthier, and reducing the cost per journey to the individual.
Artificial Intelligence will drive and steer the driverless revolution
Of course, none of this would be possible without AI. The far reaching power will enable any operational and technical problems with driverless vehicles to be overcome extremely quickly. At Fountech, we’re working hard on novel, patentable AI solutions in all walks of life. The architecture that we create mimics human brain synaptic connections. We’re creating software that ‘thinks’ like people, but only gets things wrong once.
We’re looking at AI from a different perspective and we’re keen to work with tech startups who think the same way about the world in which we live. Whether it’s driverless car technology or whatever field you’re working in, we’ll have a smart solution to integrate. We can help you raise investment and we’ll hold your hand all along the way.
We’re driven to succeed. Fancy a ride along?
April 2018 Published in Forbes