"Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads." So said Doc Emmett Brown at the end of Back to the Future as he prepared Marty McFly for the flying-car future of 2015 and another round of time-travelling capers.
Well, 2015 is here and flying cars don’t exist, obviously. But 30 years since the Doc’s famous words, we have reached an age when the government of the day has approved tests of driverless cars on public roads. Great Scott!
Sadly, these cars aren’t much to look at, and they're certainly no DeLorean. The Meridian resembles an oversized golf buggy, and the Lutz Pathfinder (pictured) looks a bit like a souped-up lawnmower. The BAE Jeep is pretty cool, though.
Visual gripes aside, I for one welcome our new self-driving car overlords. If the technology can be made viable we are at the beginning of a journey that will change the world beyond all recognition, and for the better.
Computer reaction times are vastly superior to humans', which should reduce crashes. Furthermore, there should be no risk of your driverless car drink driving, falling asleep at the wheel, making phone calls, texting, sexting, smoking or doing anything else done by humans that leads to chunks of metal smashing into one another at terrifying speeds with life-altering consequences.
Also, because the reaction times are so much greater cars should be able to travel closer together thereby reducing traffic congestion - something cities around the world most definitely require.
Genuine concerns, of course, but you’re just as much at risk from being careered into by some idiotic, uninsured 'yoof' in a stolen car as you are in a driverless car that screws things up.
In fact I’d say you’re almost definitely safer, as the safety requirements of driverless cars will be so high as to make the chances of something going wrong almost infinitesimal.
The problem is psychological. You only have to take your eyes of the road for a split-second and you could end up getting a crash course in Newton’s Laws of Motion, but because we're in control, we trust this will never happen. Never mind whether the other driver is paying attention.
Whereas, with a driverless car, we imagine sitting quietly reading a book, doing some knitting, peeling potatoes as the car drives us home, only to realise something is going wrong over which you have no control before the worst happens.
The inordinate amount of coverage given to each Tesla crash or fire in the US versus the fact that normal cars crash and burn every day is proof of our illogical response to new technologies.
That said, I don’t think we should start to imagine a world in our lifetimes where people never drive and are merely passive passengers, like crash test dummies in a shiny Renault Robotic or Audi Automaton.
More likely there’ll be some form of balance (everyone loves that word in the tech world) where the driverless car function will be legal on motorways or A-roads where it will be feasible to let the car take full control.
For reversing, parking and other intricate movements, such as when driving around towns and cities, the human will take control again, just like pilots who mainly handle take off and landing.
Maybe there'll be road signs saying 'Disengage driverless car mode now'.
One way or another, we should definitely expect driverless cars to exist on our roads in some form. It’s not just me, or the government, who believes this but Kevin Ashton too, the man who coined the phrase the Internet of Things, no less.
“The self-driving car is already real,” he said at an event I attended on Wednesday, referring to giant bauxite mining trucks in Australia.
“Five to 10 years from now, every car will have self-driving capability, whether you want it or not. We're 15 years away from cars without steering wheels being available.”
I’m not sure manufacturers will take out the steering wheel. I think they’ll leave it in, as a psychological thing just to give us the illusion of control (as discussed). But that's by the by. Ashton is right: driverless cars will become a 'thing'.
This scares us now, because it's new and unknown and throws up a litany of questions.
But it won't take long for it to become an accepted, normal part of everyday life, where the first sight of a driverless car - "Look, there's one of those Mazda Mechanoids!" - will soon become commonplace, everyday, boring.
Any cursory glance back at history shows us that new ideas loaded with benefits always break through - cars, telephones, planes, televisions, the internet, the web, smartphones and the rest.
Perhaps when it comes to driverless cars only one thing is certain: Roads? Where we’re going we need roads.
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