Driverless Cars

Saturday 26th August

I wrote recently about the future being here already, and it seems that we are hurtling headlong into an automated ‘artificial intelligence’ world.  It was also one of the themes in my book “2066 – a personal memoir” where a future exists where almost everything is decided by computers, far more efficient but lacking in those very human qualities; compassion, love, caring – and also the bad ones but which are also essential of guile and deception.

Anyway, I have just seen on the BBC that trials will begin next year of driverless lorries. And my thoughts are mixed.  In many ways this may be far safer than the present system of controlled chaos, with drivers, maybe tired, maybe not fit, maybe listening to music or on their phone – and yet having a very dangerous amount of metal travelling at high speed in their sometimes less than completely capable hands.  But…and here is the big problem.  We all know how reliable computers can be, and yet how often they simply don’t work properly too.  How many times has your computer simply restarted in the middle of you working for no good reason.  And as for the internet, we all know how flakey that can be too.  There is also the issue of there being both driverless and human driver vehicles on the same bit of road.  If there is a collision who will be to blame?  And if it is found to be a fault with the driverless vehicle whose fault will that be; the manufacturer or the programmer or the gps satellite provider or the owner of the vehicle….

Supporters of the idea say that a human must be sitting at the wheel in case of a fault in the system.  But here we can foresee problems too.  Inevitably even a human sitting there will relax as the computer drives the car, maybe even nodding off.  And how will they know the computer has malfunctioned; it will probably be too late to manually take over.  Another idea is for driverless lorries to be in a convoy (effectively a train, whatever happened to them), with only the front lorry having a human in it; the others programmed to remain at the same speed and a certain distance from the vehicle in front.  But as far as I can see these would have to be on separate roads or the problems above would still arise.

The most worrying feature though is the reasoning behind this.  If it were purely safety that would be one thing, but I am sure that saving money is the real motive.  Obviously being in the slipstream of another vehicle would cut down on fuel, and pollution, so a good thing.  But the motive may be eventually to eliminate drivers altogether.  Just another worrying trend.  Some forecasters are estimating that up to a half of all jobs could be lost in the next few decades.  Many of them are pretty boring and menial, but at least they are jobs – and we cannot all be computer technicians or working in creative and interesting professions.  We may be heading into a future where the divisions between haves and have-nots are even more clearly defined; those clever enough to be in interesting jobs and those unfortunate enough to be replaceable by computers.