August newsletter: The driverless car conundrum solved

I have finally resolved a conundrum that has been bugging me for several years. Despite writing numerous articles and two editions of a book on driverless cars, as well as taking part in several debates on the subject, I could not understand what had stimulated the project in the first place and, in particular, why so much money had been invested in the notion despite seeing absolutely no return for nearly two decades.
Thanks to various articles – notably a recent one in the Telegraph by Andrew Orlowski in the Telegraph and a piece on Wired which showed how Elon Musk had used a human to demonstrate a supposed robot – I have had something of a light bulb moment. The whole driverless car concept was a joke that a few very rich tech billionaires have been playing on us. It all started for military reasons, when the US Department of Defense agency, DARPA, launched the challenge of developing driverless vehicles, in order to avoid putting soldiers at risk in the battlefield. Several tech entrepreneurs got enthusiastic about the idea and poured billions into it, backing up the research with plenty of hype.
Now, though, as Orlowski writes in the Telegraph, the driverless ‘dream now looks all but dead’. He points out that Tesla is up against it as the National Highways Traffic Safety Administration has, at last, announced an investigation into the accidents caused by drivers depending too much on Tesla’s misnamed ‘Autopilot’ and in particular smashing into emergency vehicles – which has happened  at least 11 times. Moreover, Uber and Lyft have pulled out of driverless car research, and even Apple appears to be no longer interested.
Musk has long made all kinds of predictions that he has failed to live up to. For example he promised last year that by now all his Tesla cars would assume a life of their own at night and head driverless to the nearest town or city where they would act as taxis earning money for the owner as he or she slept.  This was patent nonsense and of course will never happen – does someone owning a $60,000 car want vomiting Uber customers to use it overnight? – but somehow still obtained useful publicity for Tesla.
But I suspect he has now overstepped the mark and ruined his credibility with his latest joke, which was to have a video of a cavorting ‘robot’ which ultimately was revealed to be a human. That is Musk’s subconscious – if he has one – accepting that actually humans are better than machines at lots of things, including driving cars. This may well  be Musk’s Ratner moment that reveals the underlying weakness  of his business model which is based on hype and relies on the naivety of those reporting on his business..
Orlowski kindly mentions my concept of the Holborn problem, set out in my book Driverless Cars: on a road to nowhere (still available by sending me a tenner), which is one of the reasons why the technology is unworkable. The experience of the past decade has shown there are many other reasons, too.
On other fronts, I am editing my book on British Railways which will be published next year by Penguin and updating my Crossrail book to time the second edition with the opening of the line, which hopefully is February next year. And there are the usual additions on my website, principally Rail  columns as working on my books has taken up virtually all my time recently – though happily Parkruns are back and I am still running under 30 mins – just!If you want to subscribe to this newsletter, go to my website and scroll down on the home page