26 APR 2018: In my humble opinion, all this chatter about the amazing benefits autonomous vehicles will manifest on humanity, road safety and the planet in general is just so much hokus-pocus. If the whole world, or at the very least whole countries, could overnight switch to 100 percent driverless cars, then maybe it could work.  Absent that however, and any long-term co-mingling of fallible humans and robotic drivers will be an unmitigated disaster! Take for instance what happened to me just the other day -

On a busy, two-lane, woodsy suburban road, I’d been following the little old lady in front of me for about five minutes - ‘little’ being the operative word: She was one of the classic variety that looked through, rather than over the steering wheel. And, as seems to be the wont of such octogenarian drivers, she was driving at about half the posted speed limit. With a double yellow line seemingly going on forever it was impossible to (legally) pass her but then, without any indication, she suddenly braked hard and swerved towards a side-road on the other side of the street.

Resisting the urge to blast my horn - which it should be noted, I would probably have done had it been an elderly male driver - I was about to pass her when out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the equally ancient lady in the passenger seat wildly gesticulating to the driver to turn back into the main road.  This she promptly did, almost removing the front left corner of my vehicle in the process. Defensively I now hung back awaiting her next move and, sure enough, less than a minute later, again with no signal, she suddenly veered off towards the next street. Despite the fact I’d been behind her all that time, I genuinely believe she was totally oblivious to my presence at any stage during her crazy maneuverings!

So let’s play “What If?”

What if the little old lady had been driving her car but my mine had been self-driving i.e. controlled by a satellite? There’s no way the eye in the sky could ever have detected the passenger‘s wave and presumably a shout of, “No, no, Ethel, keep going! It’s the next turning!” Two self-driving cars would not have had the problem but Ethel’s illogical unpredictability would have got the better (or worst) of any automotive algorithm.

There are of course countless pros and cons for autonomous vehicles.  The theoretical pros see them reducing accidents and the associated fatalities  – no need for either sobriety or a designated driver when you have a ‘Jetsonesque’ vehicle waiting outside the pub to safely see you home and then park itself in the garage.

If they aren’t all electric to begin with, autonomous cars will save fuel and reduce traffic jams by improving traffic flows, they will reduce the need for expensive mass transit projects… the list goes on.

The list of cons is also pretty lengthy:

The cost of implementing the new technology is likely to be well outside the reach of the average driver. Right now $100k per vehicle is predicted but would obviously drop dramatically with greater adoption rates.

As mentioned, the dangers while merging self-driving vehicles into the traditional modes of mobile madness would potentially make the roads even more dangerous for a while.  When there is an accident - and there will be accidents - who’s held responsible?

There’s no legal precedent here - do you sue the other non-driver, their computer, the software developers, the car manufacturer? And then, over time when former drivers no longer have the obsolete skills to drive a car, what happens if there’s a techno-glitch? Would they be left helpless?

Of course, the seldom discussed but surely single greatest argument against autonomous vehicles has to be that the majority of people actually enjoy driving and would far rather be behind the wheel themselves. In my own case, and probably not atypically, I intensely dislike being driven by anyone else, no matter how good or bad a driver they may be.

Now I could take some cheap shots here about my wife’s driving but I couldn’t possibly stoop so low!

No seriously, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the driving, I’d just much rather do it myself. And by no means least, like so many others I also like cars: I mean, why on earth would anyone want to own a Bugatti Veyron if they couldn’t actually drive the beast?

There again, the undeniable truth is that if a self-driving alternative would enable Ethel’s kids to discretely take her car keys away, maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all. There are a lot of Ethel’s out there!

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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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