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Driverless Cars - The Madness Continues

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

The DriveWrite Archives Topics:  Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Driverless Cars - The Madness Continues

Geoff Maxted
DriveWrite
September 15, 2013


The Machine Stops
Over the last decade or so, the prospect of self-driving cars has edged ever closer. Test cars loaded up with all manner of technical wizardry have gradually brought us to the stage whereby one company has confidently announced that these autonomous vehicles will be available to buy from the year 2020. The trouble is that nobody has satisfactorily answered the question, ‘why’?

Certainly, the thinking behind it - apart from making huge sums of money, obviously - is road safety because ninety five percent of fatal car crashes are caused by humans. We are therefore deemed not sufficiently evolved to drive properly and consequently we need machines to take responsibility for us.

However, anyone who read, over one hundred years ago and subsequently, the short story, ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster will know how that could work out.

The thinking is that accidents will be a thing of the past. The trouble is, real life has a habit of getting in the way of this auto-utopia. Should the worst happen and some electrical component fail on the car, how is fault assigned in an accident where nobody was driving? How do you explain to a grieving parent that the accident at the school crossing was nobody’s error?

It seems that new legislation which will alter the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (the Euro-bible for our highways) is to be tabled shortly, which will allow automatic systems to take control much like an aircraft as long as the ’pilot’ is ready to act. This effectively extends further the rights already allowed to drivers using cruise control and lane management devices and the like, although, of course, the driver still has hands on the wheel. The next stage is to let us let go. This is the worrying bit. I don’t have a problem with safety devices that help prevent disaster (especially when you have a choice to turn them off); no - it’s the final letting go that is the issue. The idea that you can sit back and forget about it.

Clearly not all drivers are like this writer and car fans generally. We actually have the temerity to enjoy driving and do not just treat cars as transport. Good driving is fun and it’s a skill. Some of us are better than others. Many of us should never ever switch of traction control for example, but what unifies us is a love of automobiles. If the automotive nay-sayers have their way, that open road spirit will be gone forever.

To me, it beggars believe that car manufacturers are pushing for this technology to be legalised whilst still presenting us with cars that make the blood course through our veins. You can’t have it both ways. What, in other words, is the point?

Certainly road safety is an issue and there have been many worthwhile improvements made to cars to that end. The tragic fact is that accidents will always happen. There will always be people who shouldn’t be allowed near a Tonka Toy let alone a full grown car. We already have speed limits and most drivers don’t object to that but to take the final step, even if it’s a long way off, seems to suggest the final nail in the coffin of that thing we call motoring.



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