Autonomous Transport

Driving the point home… Driverless cars: A thinkpiece

It’s an idea right out of a 1960s sci-fi movie, but self-driving cars are actually here! Amazingly, less than 60 years on from the silver screen’s futuristic notion, what once seemed totally far-fetched is reality. But are these vehicles here to stay?

In the week that the UK government’s Department for Transport has announced self-driving cars could be legal on UK roads by the end of the year, we rev up the Ebuyer engine and take this interesting notion out for a spin…

Turning the key on terminology

The whole concept of self-driving cars probably suggests a travel machine which needs no input from a human being other than a basic initial command. You’d think you could simply climb into a car-like box and select your destination on a computer screen and then sit back and chill while this four-wheeled wonder runs you from A to B, wouldn’t you? Or maybe, like Johnny Cab in the Arnie film Total Recall, a human-resembling robot in the driving seat will take your instructions and get on with the trip?

But it’s not quite at that pitch yet…

In truth that level of technology is still way off. Technically speaking there are no ‘actually driverless’ cars on the market (in the way that the word ‘driverless’  first suggests) – although there are elements of self-driving technology available in some current cars.

It’s important, really, to note some differences in meaning around the terminology. There are several names applied to vehicles that can drive themselves and they don’t all mean quite the same thing. Each of the terms ‘automated’, ‘self-driving’, ‘autonomous’ and ‘driverless’ is very much within the same ball-park – but each applies to a slightly different level of automation.

Johnny Cab and Arnie (Carolco / TriStar Pictures)

Why driverless?

A huge element in the development of this sort of technology is that it could be safer for people. Road safety charity Brake’s director of campaigns Joshua Harris said: “These vehicles have enormous potential to eliminate driver error and help put an end to the daily tragedy of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.”

But there is also comfort. Driving (whether that’s for work or for leisure) can be quite a tiring and stressful pursuit, without you actually realising the toll it takes. Operating a vehicle and navigating our nation’s roads requires an unusual level of concentration that you wouldn’t find in too many other areas of life. Sure, we have radios or media players in our cars to add a bit of brain-comfort, but driving a vehicle requires a sustained period of focus and attention.

So the concept of automated cars seems, on first thought, to be something we really should be aiming for as a species. If scientists can create dishwashers to get rid of The Washing Up Problem, then surely the good old motor car is high on the list too? Surely the point of all of these robots and machines and computers that have been developed is to make ‘mundane tasks’ a lot easier (translation: almost zero effort) for mankind?

How driverless?

A self-driving car employs sensors and cameras to continuously scan the area surrounding it. In doing so it should detect hazards like other vehicles, pedestrians, junctions, traffic lights, road markings and so on. As a result of processing the information it compiles, a central ‘brain’ should control acceleration, steering and braking accordingly.

A self-driving car’s brain has the ability to ‘learn’ and so it can make decisions based on driving experience, rather than merely following a pre-programmed set of commands. A self-driving car could also ‘communicate’ with other driverless cars in an effort to prevent accidents or to ease congestion.

All of this accumulated intelligence is essential in coping with the continuously changing traffic conditions during a single journey.

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Where are we now?

According to the government, vehicles with ALKS technology can now be legally defined as self-driving “as long as they receive GB type approval and that there is no evidence to challenge the vehicle’s ability to self-drive.”

An explanation of ALKS is required, here. It’s an acronym for Automated Lane Keeping System. The Centre for Connected & Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) offers the following definition for ALKS: “A system for low-speed application which is activated by the driver and which keeps a vehicle within its lane by controlling the lateral and longitudinal movements of the vehicle for extended periods without the need for further driver input.”

If that seems like a lot of overly wordy jargon, then let’s put it much more simply. The Department for Transport have referred to ALKS as a “traffic jam chauffeur”. In other words, the car drives autonomously on motorways by adapting speed and motion to that of the surrounding traffic and the appropriate speed limit. There is a clear distinction between ALKS and any current driver assistance systems. In those, the driver has to remain physically in control of the vehicle at all times. And, importantly, in ALKS the speed of a car in a single lane will be limited to 60km/h (that’s 37mph in old money).

With their new legal definition of self-driving, the government has confirmed that drivers will not be required to monitor the road or keep their hands on the wheel when the vehicle is driving itself. However, they must stay alert and be able take over the vehicle when requested by the system within 10 seconds. If they don’t, the vehicle will automatically switch on hazard lights, slow speed and eventually stop. The Highway Code is working on new rules to put into law to make sure the technology is familiar and understood – and, most importantly, that it is used safely.

Will self-driving be safer?

It’s an interesting question, really. In 2018, 85 percent of all road collisions that resulted in injury or death involved human error. The UK government argues that ALKS will make our roads much safer by removing some of the elements of humanity from the driving equation: ie. chance and free will or carelessness. Or, at the very least the technology is being developed to mitigate against them.

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However, even though this exciting tech is heading in the ‘right’ direction in terms of making life easier, there will definitely be accidents, injuries and casualties along the way to the perfect system. There is always, like a weed forcing its way through a miniscule crack in the pavement, room for things to go wrong that cannot be foreseen.

We’re not ‘gore-heads’ here so we won’t go into massive detail here, but there have been several accidents and fatalities in even reaching this point with driverless or self-driving cars.

In 2016 in Florida a man was killed when his Tesla, running on autopilot software, slammed into a tractor. In a blog post following the accident, Tesla expressed condolences – but, in chillingly blank and corporate fashion, explained that the “autopilot software was beta”… What?! Indeed.

Driving the point home

Despite all of your excitement about the UK DfT’s announcement that self-driving cars could be legal on UK roads by the end of 2021, it’s probably worth taking a moment to consider Tesla’s infamous “beta” comment before you rush out and buy a vehicle of this ilk.

Human progress should be tied up with trust, and technological progress which could endanger human life should be tied up with test after test after test. And then more testing. But maybe we should set our enthusiasm for this going in the slow lane, and still think of the whole self-driving or driverless cars thing as… erm… a ‘beta’ concept.

We love technology, and we definitely have to move forward into the future – really, we have no choice because that tech we love is dragging us there by the hair. But perhaps foot off the pedal and caution on this one is really important. Don’t get us wrong – we do genuinely love the idea of driverless vehicles. As we said a few paragraphs back, anything which makes life that bit easier and involving less effort is welcome!

But, like actual driving itself, going forward in not the fastest but the steadiest, smartest and safest way is absolutely key.

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