The dream of driverless cars is just that. Robot vehicles are on a crash course with the reality of urban streets. So writes Christian Wolmar, the author of Driverless Cars: On a road to nowhere.
Almost every day there is media coverage of the imminent arrival of driverless cars. We are made to believe that these vehicles will soon be on a road near you and that, according to those working on these projects, “they will change our lives”.
We are presented with a vision of less congested streets as people forego their individual cars and use only shared driverless vehicles that will whisk them off to work and take their kids to school. Some real enthusiasts even talk of being able to grass over suburban streets because they will no longer be cluttered up with individually-owned parked cars.
One of the many downsides of this vision is that cyclists are seen as a major obstacle to this utopia. They are, according to the now departed boss of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, difficult for the robot cars to take into account. At a press test drive, he told journalists in 2016 that “The [driverless] car is confused by [cyclists] because from time to time they behave like pedestrians and from time to time they behave like cars.” Indeed, the first pedestrian to be killed by a car that was in autonomous mode was a woman who was wheeling a bicycle with shopping bags hanging on its handlebars.
That incident, involving an Uber test vehicle in March 2018, was a major setback to the industry as Uber had to suspend its testing. It also highlighted the practical and ethical problems with the technology. Subsequent reports into the incident uncovered the fact that the software in the Uber test vehicles had been altered in order to reduce the number of times the vehicles slowed down for what proved to be false positives – such as, say, plastic bags flying around or birds seemingly playing ‘Dare’. Therefore, six seconds before the fatal collision, the car apparently interpreted the cyclist as a plastic bag, and it was only two seconds before that it reinterpreted her as a cyclist. But even then, it assumed she was not on a collision course
This terrible story is instructive because it shows that the technology companies, who are working in tandem with the auto manufacturers, are prepared to cut corners in order to try to bring their products to market more quickly. However, the experience of the past decade or so during which billions of dollars (one estimate is $80bn) have been spent on trying to develop these vehicles suggest that the Holy Grail of a driverless world is unobtainable. And certainly it seems pretty clear that the notion that we will all be using shared autonomous vehicles is pure fantasy.
Christian Wolmar is a Trustee of the London Cycling Campaign and the author of Driverless Cars: On a road to nowhere.