Driverless cars and dead bodies

Technology is the new religion. Because of the transformation from an analog to a digital world in the past half century, there is a growing belief that Technology can solve any problem. The line between what is feasible and what cannot be achieved by new inventions has become so blurred that many people are beginning to assume that anything is possible, including eternal life.

Driverless cars are probably the most widely part of this paradigm. Barely a day goes by without news of the latest development in driverless cars. New sites for testing, developments in the technology or dates for their introduction are constantly being announced in the media. Indeed, an analysis of the predictions of 18 car makers by BDO, the accountancy and business advisory company, suggests, with a precision that possibly reflects an element of irony,  that on average, ‘driverless technology will be ready around 2 am on June 11th, 2021’ whereas ‘ride-hailing services and technology suppliers’ predict that driverless car technology will be ready by midnight, March 14th, 2020’.

What ‘ready’ means rather differs from company to company. The common standard employed in the industry is that there are six levels of ‘autonomy’ ranging from Level 0 – think 2CV or Ford Anglia – to Level 4 where the car drives itself in any eventuality but still has a steering wheel and pedals and Level 5 where they have neither and there is no possibility of human intervention except, possibly, an emergency stop button. The various companies involve are often unclear about precisely what they mean by driverless – or to use the more technical term ‘autonomous’ – and therefore the significance of these potential milestones is somewhat unclear.  The implication, however, of all these predictions is that in the near future, driverless cars will play a significant role in the transportation systems of many countries across the world.

While the various manufacturers have somewhat different conceptions of what this new driverless world may look like, the long term vision converges towards a major transport revolution that will be based on driverless, electric and shared used vehicles. It is a giant leap for mankind and yet it has been broadly accepted by most commentators and business analysts in this field. Worse, politicians are lapping it up. There is an astonishing arrogance in the tone of much of the PR material coming out of the industry. They talk about driverless cars as if they are an inevitable development that not only cannot be stopped but must be welcomed and encouraged. This is what makes the whole concept so dangerous.

Yet, the very radicalism and the huge number of obstacles that need to be overcome before this vision can become a reality are barely examined. It is, in fact, three separate revolutions bundled into one concept by the techno optimists who seem to take as given a variety of radical assumptions which fall apart. Moreover, they are selling the concept on the basis that in this new world, there will be less congestion, fewer cars, more efficient use of road space and no more accidents.

The least innovatory and radical of these assumptions is that vehicles will increasingly be electric. That is highly likely but upscaling the production and sale of electric cars beyond a minority market has proved difficult because of the high initial cost, the short range (or rather fears about the range) and the paucity of models and currently sales represent around 2 per cent of the UK market. This is growing but only slowly and there are concerns that the biggest constraint will be the production of sufficient batteries to support a rapid expansion in the electric and hybrid share of the market.

Setting these difficulties aside, the second assumption is that people will happily dispense with their own cars once driverless models become widely available and rely on Uber type services to call up vehicles when they are needed. This is tendentious in the extreme. For the past century or so, people have bought their own cars, despite the high cost, for a whole host of reasons: convenience, choice of type of vehicle, accessibility and, for many, keeping up or bettering the Joneses. The idea that suddenly this will all be abandoned because vehicles will no longer be driven but will be autonomous does not appear to be logical. After all, for people who at the moment live in a city served by good private hire and taxi services including Uber, the option of not owning a car is perfectly feasible. Yet, talking to the people who run Zipcar, they recognise that this will always be a minority. People like the convenience of having , say, baby seats, golf clubs or tools in the car and moreover, the guarantee that the car is outside the home for immediate use. Relying on a shared use when you have to get to work at a particular time or take the kids to school will never be able to replace that. Uber, at the moment, is notorious for telling people that the car will arrive in 5 minutes and it takes 15. Moreover, while in central London it may be possible to rely on getting a vehicle in double quick time, will people in Woking or Chelmsford, or, say, living five miles outside those towns, ever be able to rely on such a service? The provision of sufficient cars would simply not be cost effective – who would take the financial risk?  Moreover, would these cars be guaranteed to be clean and not full of last night’s occupants’ BO  or, worse, vomit. Who will ensure this is the case?

There are a myriad other reasons why this scenario is implausible. This is, on the face of it, a very strange basis for the massive investment programmes by the tech and auto manufacturers given the lack of evidence that people are prepared to do this. So why has this shared use concept become so important for the autonomous car protagonists?

The reason, in fact, points to their Achilles Heel and demonstrates that the extent to which the whole fantasy of an autonomous car dominated world is an impossible dream. The supporters of autonomous cars have been forced to put forward this shared use scenario is because otherwise they will face the criticism that the advent of driverless cars will lead to an increase in cars on the road and consequently greater congestion.

‘Ah no’, they say, ‘cars are only in use around 5 per cent of the time and therefore having autonomous cars which are shared will lead to a massive reduction in the number of vehicles on the road’. This is a desperate argument borne of the necessity to create the pretence that the spread of driverless will lead to a reduction in congestion when the opposite is so obviously the case. Not only will people be unwilling to rely on what is effectively a driverless taxi service, but there will be all these completely empty cars driving around – note that Uber presently has an average passenger occupancy rate of 0.6 which means they are driving around nearly half the time without a passenger.

The third element of this triple revolution is even more remote possibility. At present, there is no such thing as a driverless car. Most of the testing in the US has been carried out by cars monitored by an operator who is supposed to intervene when things are about to go wrong – something that clearly did not happen when the poor woman wheeling a bike which had bags on its handlebars in Arizona was killed because the car failed to recognise her as human. It identified her initially as a plastic bag and then as a cyclist who was not on a collision course.

At present, the technology has reached Level 3 but that has proved extremely problematic as the extent of the automation is high enough to enable people to lose attention but not sufficient for the car to drive itself safely. Test drivers have tended to nod off. Currently, there is no such thing as a Level 4 car except on very limited circuits for which the car has been preprogrammed.

Many of the development programmes have stalled as the complexity of replacing humans has become all too apparent. There have been regular announcements from the likes of Volvo and even Waymo, the Google subsidiary, that the development of the cars has been postponed.

In addition to technical difficulties, there are legal, security, insurance and social obstacles for these cars to overcome and this has become increasingly recognised in the parts of the media not convinced by the hype. Just to give one example of the impossibility of the driverless dream, it is clear that the cars would have to be programmed to stop if someone walked in front of one. There are two potential implications of this: either the whole balance of power on the roads will shift from cars to pedestrians, who will exploit their ability to stop cars by simply walking into the street whenever it is convenient, something which is already happening in test areas  – think, for example, how impossible it would be for cars to proceed in crowded places where people are spilling off the pavements into the highway; or the rules will have to be changed to prevent people walking in the streets, and this may well have to be reinforced with physical barriers, separating cars from pedestrians. The first would make driverless cars unworkable, the second would be a major restriction of freedom. The corollary, incidentally, is that passengers will never be able to be secure in a driverless car since any aggressor would be able to stop the car by simply standing in front of it. When I put this to Professor Paul Newman, head of Oxbotica which is trialling autonomous cars, he called the suggestion ‘ludicrous’ but did not address it.

Transport seems to attract impossibilist dreams more than other areas because it has been the focus of so many successful innovations since that first steam engine hauled train rumbled down the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830 – trams, underground railways, bicycles, cars, planes and rockets all contributed to spreading the industrial revolution and the creation of mass transport.

Apart from driverless cars, the other big technological dream in the transport world is hyperloop, Elon Musk’s baby which promises to create a system that could propel passengers in small pods at at a speed of 760 mph bringing, for example, Los Angeles and San Francisco a mere 35 minutes apart. Again, it is not just the technology which so far is nowhere near fully developed, but a whole host of other issues, such as safety, security and, crucially, capacity.

The propulsion system is maglev, or magnecit levitation. The basic principle is that since the train – or pod – is held up by magnetic forces, far less energy is needed to propel it forward. Musk has put forward a variety of schemes to build long distance lines using pods in a vacuum tube, claiming that these would be as fast as airplanes but far more accessible. This is by no means a new concept and has been discussed for more than a century but has been only put into commercial in a handful of places because of the technical difficulties the concept has encountered. They include coping with junctions (something railways still struggle with), ensuring the vacuum is maintained, developing safe braking mechanisms and reducing the impact of thermal expansion (which would be very high on one of Musk’s initial schemes, between San Francisco and Los Angeles).

There are others, but as Gareth Dennis, a railway engineer has pointed out, the low capacity is likely to mean the costs are prohibitive. Using Hyperloop’s own figures, there would be at best 50 people in each pod, and given that there would have to be a safe distance between pods, this would result in a maximum 3,000 people per hour – compare that with a high speed train with, say, 1,100 aboard and a modest 18 departures per hour, which would have a capacity of nearly 20,000 per hour. Given the construction costs are unlikely to be significantly lower for hyperloop and the energy costs per person will be far higher, the economics do not stack up.

Yet, as with driverless cars, not only is a lot of money going into this concept, but governments across the world, from India to Finland, are being suckered into signing initial agreements to work up schemes that, on  the basis of even a cursory analysis, do not make economic or environmental sense.

While transport attracts more than its fair share of these fantasies, probably the most scientifically illiterate is the idea of cryonics. I include it in this article because there are many similarities about the way the concept is being sold to a public blinded by faith in Technology, and it also, like so much of this technology based faith emanates from the West Coast of America.

Cryonics is the notion that freezing a body instantly after death in liquid nitrogen will enable the deceased to be resurrected at some point in the future when the Technology is available. It is even more fanciful than driverless cars or hyperloop. The biology is all too simple and fatal to both the deceased and the concept. As with these other technologies, there are too many reasons to set out comprehensively in a short article but Clive Coen, a renowned neuroscientist, sets out several daunting technological obstacles (‘To store, perchance to thaw?’ New Humanist, November 18, 2016). He first points out that most of our body is water and therefore to freeze it rapidly will result in ice forming which is likely to break many of the fragile membranes in our brain. Getting any anti freezing agent into these inner parts of the brain quickly enough to prevent deterioration seems impossible. Then there are the connections, the neurones, between brain cells: ‘As acknowledged by its advocates, cryonics leads to the dehydration of cells and tissues. Where’s the evidence that the signalling molecules can be protected from irreversible damage due to local dehydration?’, he asks. He also suggests that oxygen starvation is likely to cause irreversible damage to the brain far more quickly than the body could be preserved.

Apart from all these objections relating to the brain, there is also the practical problem that given the deceased, euh, died, would there be the science to rein back on the illness that caused death. Then there is the problem of reheating the body, which might well cause further damage. And in any case, who wants to wake up in 200 years when all your friends are long dead and the world is an alien place, quite possibly with lots of driven cars? There are many other examples of this new religious fervour for technology. Of course, some inventions come to fruition and change the way we live, like smartphones and the internet. However, the path to the 21st century world of technology has been strewn with failures and concepts that remained undeveloped for practical, economic or social reasons. Technological determinism is the new religion of the age but sceptics, who are by no means Luddites, must constantly ask the right questions and debunk the myths, hopefully before the politicians agree to pour vast sums of money into futuristic plans that ultimately do not prove remotely feasible.