There’s a family tale about my great-grandfather. Every Saturday (a local market day) he would take his horse and cart into town. There he would visit a pub (long gone now, but I remember it) called the Dog, and drink exactly 8 pints of beer. At that point he would get back on the cart and let the horse take him home. It knew the way.
In the past week or so there has been a blizzard of news stories (here’s one) about the decision of the UK government to allow driverless cars to be trialed in four cities. Other governments have also shown great interest in the idea. This is quite surprising, because governments aren’t typically early adopters of new technology, but I suppose driverless cars are seen as economically compelling.
A related story is about Google’s ambition to win the race for the driverless car market, having made a big investment in experiment vehicles over the last five years.
What seems to me most interesting is how a driverless car could help someone with a disability that prevents them driving. The goal of driverless cars is to be fully automated, so the driver would become effectively a passenger. Traveling in such a vehicle you wouldn’t need a license, or to watch the road, or even to be awake. (A bit like my great-granddad being carried back home by his horse.)
This raises other issues. Was my great-grandad breaking the law, by being intoxicated whilst in charge of a horse and cart? I’ve not researched it but suspect yes. So what’s the legal position with driverless cars?
Here again governments (perhaps feeling they have been wrong-footed by technology in the past) have taken the initiative. Legal changes proposed in several countries would abolish the idea of being in charge of a vehicle, if it is fully automated.
It’s a surprising thought, but robot cars might be more reliable, and lead to greater safety and less damage to vehicles than ones driven by humans. Third-party insurance might no longer be needed, because the manufacturer of a driverless car might simply pick up the liability, once the risk is so low. One recent story suggests that automated cars might even make motor racing with human drivers obsolete (although the “Big Blue” chess program did not make human chess players obsolete).
Do I think driverless cars will replace driven ones? Yes. But, but..
Do I they will help people who are current excluded from personal mobility – such as the young, the disabled, those without driving licenses, the elderly? A qualified yes. Eventually they will.
When? Here are some various views. Band wagons (possibly driverless) were being jumped on. Projections are pretty bullish: for example it’s claimed a driverless Audi A8 limo is only two years away. Others projection for a mass produced driverless car are 2020 or 2025. Or even 2028 – 2032.
So I’m not going to hold my breath, in case I don’t have enough left. The most optimistic estimate is 2017 (good news) but (bad news) the price is steep, I guess more than £75,000, which for now will rule out most disabled people.
I think I’ll just have to stick with buses, trains and planes (and the occasional taxi). You can do a lot of public transport for £75,000.
All the same the idea that automated vehicles will one day make private travel possible for disabled people and other excluded groups is very tantalizing. If technological and economic progress don’t fail us I predict the dream will come true over the next couple of decades.