On the road: Switching off
Remember that delicious spat, almost a decade ago now, between Bill Gates and General Motors, in which the former suggested that ‘If GM kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we’d all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon’?
Endearing me to the company considerably, GM stormed back with a superbly pithy press release which pointed out that, had GM indeed developed similar technology, its cars would be imbued with some extremely interesting characteristics.
Amongst my favourites being: ‘For no reason whatsoever, the car would crash twice a day… Every time they repainted the lines on the road, you’d have to buy a new car… Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, you car would lock you out and refuse to let you in unless you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna… The airbag system would ask ‘Are you sure?’ before deploying…’
And, best of all: ‘Every time GM introduced a new car you’d have to learn to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.’
Now, I mention this because, if there’s any truth at all in Government business secretary Vince Cable’s recent assertion that autonomous driver-free cars will take to UK streets in less than six months, all of the above is suddenly rendered considerably less amusing.
This is a vast subject but, let’s face it, even to scratch the surface is to unearth a daunting list of potential pitfalls…
For starters, who’ll take responsibility for my car crashing if I wasn’t actually driving it at the time? Microsoft has never once forked out when my computer goes on the blink. The transitional period when, say, 50% of the cars out there are driver-free and the other 50% normally helmed vehicles (many of which already behave as if they’re driver-free) should prove a guinea a minute.
And just how much knowledge will the autonomous car actually possess? Will it, for instance, be able to read road signs? Granted, the sight of a vast oak tree lumbering onto the dual-carriageway is an unlikely occurrence, but how will it react to a sign reading “Heavy Plant Crossing”?
One thing is certain, assuming its navigation skills are down to GPS data, satnav technology is going to have to buck up its ideas somewhat, or we’ll all be joining a clutch of Polish lorries waist-deep in the same Herefordshire village duck pond.
And never mind its questionable driving skills in slippery conditions, floods, landslides. What of the autonomous car’s decision-making skills? In the context of the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’), I read an interesting piece the other day posing the dilemma of such a car fast approaching a narrow bridge in front of which a child was sprawled on the road.
Does the car decide to kill the child, or swerve, hit the bridge, and kill you…?
However, assuming that, as with any computer, you’re not so busy waiting for it to go wrong that it would be impossible to relax on board, there should, of course, be many positives associated with motoring autonomy: The resurgence of the rural pub; no more coin tossing for the delegation of dinner party driving duties; the mobile card school; the whole of the M40 becoming the world’s largest dogging site…
But that’s just a pipe dream, because – on the basis that you might have to switch off George and take over at any moment – the first thing the Government will do is outlaw drinking, smoking, eating, making phone calls, giggling, snoozing or playing strip Scrabble on the move.
Which means, having switched off Chris Evans because you Just. Can’t. Take it. Any. More. you’ll be bored rigid. In which case, you might as well take over the controls and drive. Just to give yourself something to do.