The driverless car hype must be countered or lives will be lost

Here we go yet again. The Guardian today reports that Addison Lee ‘aims to deploy driverless cars on London’s streets’ by 2021. The Evening Standard all but reproduces the press release and concludes ‘the future is definitely autonomous’. The implication is that there will be fully autonomous vehicles speeding round the capital within three years.

Well there won’t be. I can say that unequivocally. It is just another example of PR hype sucked up by the MSM without any critical analysis. The current state of technology is such that some specialised test vehicles can drive unaided in easy conditions with an operator permanently on hand to take over if required. Interventions currently are very frequent with even the best, run by Waymo, Google’s subsidiary, averaging around an intervention every 5,000 miles and that is on very easy driving conditions of California and Arizona.

Moreover, ‘driverless’ cars have been suffering more than their fair share of accidents. Wired reported this week that there had been 49 accidents involving self-driving cars this year in California, the only state which thoroughly is monitoring these safety incidents. While some of these were trivial, more than half – 28 – involved rear end shunts which it is assumed are caused because of the quirky driving technique of these vehicles. It is unknown how many incidents have occurred elsewhere because other states, like Arizona, where a woman was killed by an autonomously driven Uber vehicle, do not list them because of their desire to attract companies involved in this technology.

And the UK is in danger of falling into the same trap. Already Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, has spoken of his desire to see these vehicles on the streets by 2021 without there being any evidence that the technology, let alone the regulatory framework and the hacking-protected software will be available. At the moment the technology is akin to the cars seen on the annual London Brighton veteran car rally in relation to what is needed for a fully autonomous vehicle, called Level 5 in the trade. Yet ministers are falling over themselves to proclaim this revolution in transport technology without the faintest understanding of its limitations or with any consideration of the implications, even if it were deliverable

Addison Lee’s aim in making an announcement which will undoubtedly prove to be massively over-optimistic is clear. They want to create a climate in which driverless cars are not just seen as acceptable but also as inevitable. The company recognises that this will require the active cooperation of politicians in order to create the road conditions required. An article in the supine Evening Standard in August by an Addison Lee PR woman rather gave the game away. Catherine Hutt wrote that the current idea of people and vehicles sharing streets would have to be scrapped: ‘street design needs consideration — autonomous vehicles need a de-cluttered environment, with clear delineation between pedestrian and vehicle space. That’s different from the Mayor’s present “Healthy Streets” agenda which emphasises shared space and pedestrian priority’. In other words, the urban environment will have to change to accommodate these vehicles for which there is no public demand.

Yet, the extent to which people have been duped by the hype put out uncritically in the MSM is borne out by a report published last week by the insurance companies’ research outfit, Thatcham. Remarkably, it found that 71 per cent of drivers around the world and more than 50 per cent in the UK think that you can buy an autonomous car now, when, in fact, no such thing exists.

A more dangerous assumption, however, is over the use of driver aids which are presented as autonomy. The research found that one in ten drivers  ‘would be tempted to have a nap while using a so-called “Highway Assist” system, such as Adaptive Cruise Control’. The dangers of this were brought home to me when I went to their testing ground on the old Upper Heyford military airport and various vehicles were allowed to drive directly at a target car parked on the carriageway. The first dodged it elegantly, the second stopped within a metre of it in an emergency procedure and the third, a Nissan Leaf, ploughed straight into it. Fortunately it is made of plastic and polysterene, and disintegrates, only to be put back together by the researchers. The accompanying GIF shows the collision which was quite scary, even though I knew it would be harmless.

The Thatcham researchers are rightly concerned about the fact that the auto manufacturers are encouraging motorists to believe that their cars have far more autonomy than they do in reality. Obviously, representing the insurance industry, they are self-interested but that does not negate their key point. The auto manufacturers are playing with fire. Today’s Addison Lee PR splurge risks contributing to this false impression.

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