We should all be welcoming autonomous cars with open arms
We're going to have to face facts: Driverless cars will one day pepper the roads like the Ford Model T once did as the successor to the horse & cart. Although the chances are you're an avid car enthusiast, cars are primarily viewed as a means of getting from A to B - often in the most economical, comfortable and safe way possible. Driverless car technology is the best way of meeting that brief. But do we have anything to fear?
First, some housekeeping: Statistics are bollocks, data is invaluable. “Statistics” are numbers haphazardly scatter-bombed into conversation to twist points and win arguments. “Data” is information recorded from testing which nourishes improvement, development and discussion. Statistics are dangerous because they are easily manipulated and easy to believe:
Waymo (Google’s autonomous spin-off) have covered over 5 MILLION miles autonomously without a fatality – this is an infinite improvement over the 3000+ road deaths California recorded in 2013. We should be implementing autonomous cars with haste, right?
Well although these statistics imply humans are pretty inept behind the wheel, we’re actually pretty decent drivers: The average Californian has to drive an average of 109.9 million miles before they are killed (2013 OTS data). Whilst Waymo’s numbers are great, they need to continue that trend for another 100+ million miles before they’re even on the same playing field (for fatalities, at least) as the human team.
The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s difficult to compare statistics between the two - autonomous cars just aren’t covering the same mileage. For that reason, I’m going to try to avoid comparing the two statistically.
Driving is an inherently dangerous activity, but it’s become very normalised. It’s easy to forget you regularly pilot literal tons of steel travelling at 70mph, inches away from other road users. Accidents are going to happen and – unfortunately – people will be injured or killed. That said, if we can minimise those injuries/fatalities we absolutely should.
Ignore autonomy for a second – ABS, Traction Control, Stability Control, Inertia-Reel seatbelts, etc. The list of safety acronyms is long, trust me. We’ve been improving vehicle safety for years and this is another step in that direction. 90% of accidents are in some way the result of the squidgy bit behind the wheel. There’s only so much you can do with that 10%.
I wanted to take a moment to discuss the recent incident where an autonomous Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian. This sparked outrage in the media and ignited this difficult discussion. You can find lots of YouTube videos which discuss the crash in detail – that’s not what I’m doing here. I’m here to state, in my opinion, the Uber car should have braked for the pedestrian. The system failed. We should still have them on the roads.
Uber - along with every other autonomous tester - acknowledge these are not actually autonomous vehicles; they need human intervention on occasion. That’s why a human is behind the wheel of every Uber autonomous car. The human can intervene to avoid accidents just like this. On average, an Uber employee has to interrupt the autonomous driving mode every 13 miles. On this occasion, the human also failed to brake in time. Technology is always improving – Waymo, for example, average a staggering 5,596 miles before a human intrudes. This can only improve further.
When it does improve, the humans and the robots can co-exist peacefully on the same stretch of tarmac. In fact, I’d argue humans would befriend a robot road user before a fellow human one. A robot does not undertake, hover in the outside/middle lane, pull out in front of you, or generally take any chances. Even if you make a mistake, your robot friend will be able to react quickly, safely, and without screaming adult words at you from behind their windshield. Road rage is a genuine danger on the roads. It builds stress, increases speed, reduces focus and creates a high-pressure environment. Autonomous cars don’t get road rage. They’re also arguably less likely to irritate you.
Consistency is tremendously undervalued when it comes to driving. Consistency makes driving easier for everyone. Humans are inconsistent. Some people are slow, some people are fast. Some people take risks while driving, some don’t. Some overtake, some refuse to pass. Some are polite, some are ignorant.
This makes a difference when you’re assessing the driving situation. Good drivers plan ahead and anticipate what’s ahead, which is much more difficult when a human is behind the wheel. Robots, by contradiction, are famously consistent. In fact, it’s their best quality - it’s nearly their only quality. Robots love to do the same thing again and again and again and again… You can anticipate what a robot will do damn-near exactly. That makes driving behind one much safer.
The autonomous car won’t replace human drivers. Those of us who still enjoy a nice Sunday B-road won’t be hindered by the arrival of autonomous cars, we’ll be assisted by them. We’re always going to have traffic on the roads – I’d just rather the traffic wasn’t quite as…human.