I have always thought this a bit of an exaggeration, but some discussions I have had, and some science articles I have read recently have started to convince me that there’s a lot more to it than it seemed – unlike those flying cars we are still waiting for after almost a century.
Several car companies apparently have the technological issues pretty much sorted – and Google’s driverless car is just the most visible example, with many car manufacturers having similarly successful projects that have clocked huge amounts of distance outside of the laboratory.
What really got me thinking though was the article’s focus on how much safer these vehicles are already starting to turn out to be compared to human drivers (and how much that is yet to be improved as these technologies become mass-market).
Your risky driver can be everything from an inexperienced youth overestimating his skill, to a drunk, to an agressive moron willing to gun it without any respect for cyclists and pedestrians. In between, you have lots of much less problematic people – who nonetheless have tired days, get distracted by their takeaway cup and don’t see all that well during rain and dark.
They are also at fault in nearly 75% of all cyclist-motorist crashes that cause injury or death to people on bikes (Safer Journeys, MoT, Page 38).
When you combine that, robot cars (or cars that allow the motorist to stay mostly in control, but will directly intervene if he/she drives unsafely) become quite an appealing concept for cyclists. That self-driving (or strongly-assisted) car will simply refuse to overtake cyclists if there isn’t a meter and a half to spare. And no more drivers cutting across your path either! The driver behind you may still grumble at how bloody cyclists always delay him – but more likely he won’t even look up from reading his book or the morning’s news on his e-reader.
Think of a road environment where parents don’t even hesitate to let their kids ride to school (okay, they may just send the Google car to drop them off instead – but at least that choice won’t discourage other parents from letting their kids cycle). Think of cities where pedestrians and cyclists can all use the streets without fear.
Of course even with all those positives, we should not take any of this for granted, or likely to really change our roads within the next couple of years – even if self-driving cars end up being “all that”, they will take decades to fully replace the current fleet. So there are no excuses for not creating safer roads NOW.
Legality issues are also still a big hurdle: If a robot car DOES hurt someone, who is at fault – the “driver”, the car manufacturer, the software programmer? Though ironically, our no-fault accident insurance could actually make implementation in New Zealand easier than elsewhere. Finally, self-driving cars won’t help against obesity, pollution, or a number of other negative effects of car dominance (a motorway will still be a massive barrier to communities, for example).
But hey, this car technology may just be one of those that has as many positives for those who aren’t driving as it does for those who do.