What will driverless cars mean for us?

RoyalAuto magazine

Would you ride in an autonomous car? When would you take back control? And will we lose our driving skills? Researchers are asking many questions as we prepare for a driverless future.

Story: Nick Place  Photos: Getty
July 2018


Professor Rob Sparrow is a Monash University ethicist who looks into the future. Right off the top, he paints an alarming scenario. “Imagine,” he says, “that you have a car accident and when it goes to court, you are asked: ‘Why were you driving the car? Your car has full autonomous potential, and is a safer driver than you, so it’s your fault that you chose to be in charge, which led to the crash.’ ”

The way Rob likes to put it there will come a time when we humans are the ‘drunk robots’ frowned upon for taking the wheel, reversing today’s concerns that autonomous car-driving technology might have bugs or weaknesses.

“If I can show you that these cars have fewer accidents than other drivers with your driving record, at least intellectually you should recognise that the sensible thing is to choose not to drive,” he says. “Then again, if the vehicles are more dangerous, then you should be really nervous about getting in them.”

So, in the words of kids in the back seat on long trips everywhere, are we there yet?

According to Professor Brian Fildes, from the Monash University Accident Research Centre, for all the conjecture about how autonomous cars might fit into our future transport needs and the oft-spruiked benefits they may bring, many necessary questions remain.

This handover of total control, these questions of humans versus technology are complex and, in many cases, unanswered.

Brian leads a consortium of Monash academics and wider industry and government stakeholders digging into the potential realities of an autonomous fleet on Victorian roads. Monash has a PhD student using MUARC’s driving simulator to experiment with when humans feel a need to take back the controls, or are asked by the car to do so, versus when an autonomous car can handle tricky driving conditions. This handover of total control, these questions of humans versus technology are complex and, in many cases, unanswered.

“There is no question in my mind, the cars will come,” Brian says, “but are we prepared for it? I don’t think we are.

“Our (MUARC’s) focus is not so much on the technology – the industry is doing all that stuff – but there seems to me to be so many questions that are unanswered in terms of the benefits to society, what are the issues for humans, the potential users of these vehicles, and a number of other social issues,” he says.

‘The papers I’ve read go from autonomous cars are going to give you nothing to they’re going to be the be-all and best of everything.’

“In Victoria, we live in this Towards Zero environment, so if these things have a role and help achieve a zero outcome, that’s fantastic, that’s what we’re hoping for. But we don’t know. The papers I’ve read go from they (autonomous cars) are going to give you nothing to they’re going to be the be-all and best of everything. I suspect the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, like all of these things. I think there will be benefits - we just don’t know at this stage what they are, and are there issues that can improve these benefits?”

A recent international study asked people: ‘Would you ride in a driverless car? And would you let your kids ride in a driverless car?’ Brian says in many countries there was a huge readiness to go driverless, including 95 per cent of Brazilians. And sure, throw the kids in the back, no problem.

“The thing is that these people have never seen one of these cars, never ridden in one,” he says, “but they’re asked: would you be prepared to? All they know is what they read in the paper.”

What worries the professors is that we’re all in this boat, to an extent. We’ve read endlessly about how taking human error out of driving will dramatically reduce road deaths and injuries, and how computer-driven cars can already navigate existing road systems if they were only allowed to by regulators.

Multiple everyday hazards - cyclists, pedestrians, animals on the road, rogue drivers - will have to be taken into account.

But really nobody knows, definitively. Considerable research, consultation, study and engineering is taking place to ensure driverless technology and infrastructure live up to the expectation, but multiple everyday hazards - cyclists, pedestrians, animals on the road, rogue drivers - will have to be taken into account.

One of the biggest questions considered by both Professors Sparrow and Fildes is exactly how autonomous cars are going to be added to the existing traffic mix, and what level of automation should be attempted.

“The real question here is about autonomy that is reliable enough for everyday use,” Rob Sparrow observes. “The distinction between no human control ever required, and human supervision required. People will be okay if the thing beeps while stopped and says: ‘I can’t make this park’, for instance, but what about when you’re travelling at high speed and there’s a rain squall, and there’s suddenly an alert: ‘exceeding traffic specifications’, and you’re asleep?

“Once enough of these things are on the road, the ‘rare events’ will occur regularly, so they really have to be able to deal with the real events.”

‘Supervising’ the auto-car driving in reality probably means getting bored quickly, and surfing Instagram on our phones.  

A fascinating sideline of that argument is that humans are generally lazy and if we don’t have to drive much, we’ll get slack about keeping up our skills. ‘Supervising’ the auto-car driving in reality probably means getting bored quickly, and surfing Instagram on our phones.  

Rob Sparrow suspects the first time we will truly see autonomous vehicles in our everyday lives will be on roads like CityLink where a lane can be dedicated to autonomous cars travelling in convoys . But really, as he points out, at that point, why not just build more infrastructure for trains?

Brian cites other cities where trials are being held, on dedicated, stand-alone roads, as well as planning for entire purpose-built greenfield civic developments. Autonomous cars may travel underground, on dedicated roads, and deliberately removed from pedestrians, unexpected bike swerves and all the other daily road realities that they might not yet be equipped to deal with.

“We need to decide,” Rob Sparrow says. “What are these things except taxis or trains? Why go forward with a model that is based around individual private ownership when there might be benefits for everyone in having fewer vehicles on the road.”

With so many unknowns, it feels unlikely that fully autonomous cars could be released to the public any time soon. “The devil will be in the detail,” Rob says. “The first company that goes to market with a thing that kills ... is going to suffer a horrible reputational crash, so you do think people will have to be quite confident indeed before they put them on the roads.”

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