Could we ever learn to love driverless cars?

  • 12 October 2010
  • From the section Magazine
David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider
Image caption David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider: the future of motoring?

Google's engineers have tested a self-driving car. But could motorists ever really let go of the wheel?

No more pile-ups, no more road rage, no more exasperated cursing as you stall at the lights.

Reading the paper during the morning commute, enjoying the scenery rather than staring at the tarmac, cutting your transport costs down to a fraction.

The promises of automatic, driver-less cars like those currently being tested by Google in California are many and varied.

Environmentalists say they could slash carbon emissions. Safety campaigners hope the removal of human error could reduce the number of road casualties which, in the UK alone, numbered 2,222 deaths and 24,690 serious injuries in 2009.

But, like a sticky clutch, the nagging doubts persist.

Could a planet with 350 million Top Gear viewers ever willingly surrender the joy of pushing down on the accelerator, the thrill of the open road? Will we ever have enough faith in technology to step inside 2,500kg of motor vehicle with no-one at the controls?

It's not as though the idea is especially novel. The notion of a "smart", driver-free motor vehicle has long persisted in science fiction, most memorably - at least, among aficionados of kitsch 1980s tea-time television - in the form of KITT, David Hasselhoff's sentient car in the series Knight Rider.

And real-life scientists, too, have been intrigued by the idea for many years.

As far back as 1977, engineers at the Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering laboratory in Japan produced a self-driving car which reached speeds of 20mph (32km/h).

In the following decade, a robotic Mercedes-Benz tipped the speedometer at more than 60mph (97km/h) on traffic-free streets. By 1994, scientists had developed a vehicle that was able to negotiate its way through three lanes of Paris traffic.

The Darpa Grand Challenge, a contest sponsored by the US defence department, pits driverless cars against each other over courses nearly 100km (60 miles) long. And driverless taxi pods are already transporting passengers around London's Heathrow airport.

Most recently, Google's cars have negotiated 140,000 miles (225,260km) - including navigating San Francisco's streets and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge - using radar sensors, roof-mounted video cameras and a laser range finder which lets it "see" other vehicles, according to the company.

This long lineage prompts the question: why aren't we, already, abandoning our cars and hailing self-driving taxis to take us to work? Surely it would be cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and leave us less vulnerable to dangerous drivers.

Undoubtedly, many technical issues still need to be ironed out. If a desktop computer bluescreens the crash is metaphorical. If the complex network of computers required to navigate a car through a typical urban commute fail, it's all too real.

Dr John Baruch, of the University of Bradford's school of computing, informatics and media, believes the automotive industry has deliberately refrained from investing in such technology.

He notes that air passengers are more than happy to fly in craft steered by auto-pilot, and is confident that all it would take to transform our way of getting around would be a dedicated team of engineers and a few million pounds of investment.

But this, Dr Baruch believes, would bring its own set of negatives - undermining the very concept of private car ownership and drastically reducing the number of vehicles on the road. He envisages robotic taxis summoned on demand replacing cars sitting idle in driveways for most of the day.

As a result, he suspects the major car manufacturers have dragged their wheels when it comes to development.

"They're against it because it would make cars into white goods," he says. "They couldn't sell you the experience of driving - but it would cut costs, we wouldn't need so many cars on the road, and there would be fewer accidents.

"I don't believe people would miss driving to their offices. I'd rather read or get on with some work than sit in a traffic jam staring at someone's exhaust pipe."

All the same, many remain sceptical. The motoring journalist Quentin Willson believes the idea is a potentially valid one that deserves research and investment. But he says we will have to go a long way before we put our such a level of trust on a daily basis in robot drivers.

"The pleasure of driving is already being eroded in this country, anyway," he concedes. "But I suspect that any system would have to be 150% reliable before anyone would put their faith in it.

"The human brain can react quickly to the blizzard of information we're confronted with on the roads. By contrast, we know what sat nav is like - it takes you on all sorts of circuitous routes.

"It's a terribly laudable idea but I don't think it's going to work."

Only time will tell whether this utopia will come to pass - and, indeed, whether motorists will be prepared to surrender the pleasures and frustrations of life behind the wheel.