It all sounds a bit weird. You get into a taxi and instead of there being a chirpy (or sometimes taciturn) driver there is just some sort of control panel. It is probably made of silver because we are after all in the future. You slide your all- purpose card into the slot and key in your destination and –whoosh- off the taxi goes. There is no driver at all, just technology whirring away which interacts with all the other driverless cars on the road in a seamless, traffic jam free ride. It sounds idyllic doesn’t it but think for a minute- would you really want to get into a car driven by a machine rather than a person?
Experts reckon the first of the so called Autonomous Vehicles (AV) will be available for the public within the next four to five years and truly self driving cars may be only a decade away. There are several levels of AV before you get to the latter and these were defined in 2014 by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Broadly speaking Level 1 involves limited driver assistance. These are vehicles that do have systems to control speed and steering while Level 2 is referred to as partial automation and involves `modest self driving`. In this model the car steers itself and may change lanes. Level 3 is “conditional automation” meaning the car handles everything, however it will return control to a driver if it encounters a situation it is unable to resolve. It is estimated the hand over period would be as little as five seconds though some argue that a driver busy concentrating on something else may need more time to take over.
It is on Level 4 that a car becomes truly self driving. In the event of something going wrong there is no driver take over- instead the car automatically slows and pulls off the road calling for help. There is a Level 5 which involves more sophisticated automation again without any driver intervention.
There is understandably a lot of debate about the pros and cons of AVs. Those in favour say they will lead to a safer and cleaner environment as they would be electrically powered. There would be a huge reduction in air pollution. There would also be the almost complete eradication of traffic accidents and tailbacks as well as meaning far fewer parking problems. The daily commute would therefore become stress free with people able to read, play games or even sleep on the way to work. Perhaps the high end AVs would have an in built alarm clock!
Those against the idea say that far from reducing traffic problems AVs would make them worse. Without the need for a driving test anyone could use a car meaning there would be more vehicles on the road and eventually no need for public transport. Software glitches, terrorist hacking and assorted tech issues could being entire areas to gridlock for hours while a handful of engineers struggle to `unlock` the roads. There is also the view that a lot of people actually enjoy driving for its own sake separated from the daily commute. There are also the unemployment issues – the decline and eventual end of public transport would be yet another area of huge job losses plus we would have thousands of empty railway stations sitting about. Some people reckon that in truth AVs are more than a decade away and that few of us will see them in our lifetime.
There is also the issue of a changeover period. Clearly everyone will not suddenly change to an AV. Like any new technology some will rush to be the first to use it, others will be more cautious waiting to see how the pioneers fare and watching to see just how many glitches there are. Some will leave it till they have no choice and the sort of cars we now know are no longer available. Do we really want a scenario where drivers and AVs share the roads? All the clever algorithms in the world won’t be able to predict erratic drivers and so called road rage.