Self-driving cars and cyclists

Google have just released information on the latest self-driving car that they’ve been working on. It’s adorable:

This is the first car that’s been designed from first principles to be controlled by a computer rather than a human driver. It’s definitely geared towards use in an urban environment and, given the amount of cash Google are throwing at this, I reckon it’s a fairly safe bet something similar will eventually be mixing it up in our cities.

The concept of self-driving cars has intrigued lots of people who cycle — understandably keen that any autonomous lumps of metal that start hurtling around our roads aren’t about to start mowing down people on bikes and on foot.

I’m definitely on the ‘this is a good thing’ bandwagon. Here’s why.

Goodbye to human error

A quick search suggests that between 90 and 95% of all vehicle crashes are caused by human error (to clarify; I searched for reports on the percentage, rather than counting the incidents myself…) Misjudging a gap, looking but not seeing, not even bothering to look, as well as the other more sinister ‘errors’ like speeding, driving whilst tired, and drink and drug driving.

Computers don’t make mistakes. Sure, if the calculations they use are garbage then the resultant quality of driving will also be garbage, but get the algorithms right and 95% of serious injuries and deaths on our roads just disappear.

Goodbye to speeding

You know we mentioned speeding up above? And how the UK urban speed limit of 30mph is one of the highest in Europe and results in more people being killed than would happen with blanket 20mph restrictions?

The Google Car is limited to an urban-friendly 25mph.

I’m going to call it the GCar from now on (which may result in Unforeseen Consequences).

Hello to victim-friendly crash features

The pedestrian safety rating on NCAP has always felt tacked-on (although as of 2009 at least it’s included within the overall score). You can get five stars by ensuring you catch the pedestrian low down on the leg and by making sure that when their head smacks on the bonnet it doesn’t also bounce off the engine block beneath.

NCAP are silent on whether points are awarded based on the height which your victim reaches after impact, but as movement up and over the vehicle is the inevitable result of being caught low on the leg I can only assume so.

Photo of the flat front of the GCar
Look at its cheeky smile! It’s smiling because it’s designed to not be the last thing you ever see… Official Google photo, click for more info.

The GCar has a wide, vertical foam front and a flexible plastic windscreen. It’s nice and low to reduce the risk of it running over you, and the low speeds and flat front also mean you shouldn’t be launched into the air either.

Of course, the safest aspect is the removal of the idiot being the wheel, and the low top speed.

Goodbye to aggressive idiots

On the assumption that the computer inside doesn’t develop a GLaDOS-like sadism, the GCar isn’t going to deliberate drive like an intimidating pig just for entertainment.

No more close passes, horns, or idiots driving head on towards you at 60mph.

The driving logic says cyclists must be passed at a sensible speed and a safe distance. So that’s what happens. Every time.

Goodbye to cars as an egotistic extension of self

Hey, let’s be wildly optimistic!

If everyone has the same, smiling GCar then folks will have to find alternative ways to express their personality instead of aggressive bull bars, loud engines, and low slung sports cars with crap visibility. As cars fall back into the role of transportation tool instead of ‘as much a part of me as my left arm’, what’s the betting road rage will fall as well?

Render of a (pink) final version of the GCar
It’s hard to behave like a stroppy child when the vehicle you’re in looks like a marshmallow. Another official Google image — click for info.

After all, if someone accidentally bumps into you as you walk through Central Station, it’s unlikely you’d respond by throwing yourself into the nearest hairdressers whilst screaming incoherently.

Goodbye to car parks, and 30% of urban traffic

Car parks are the fastest growing use of urban land in the UK, and apparently up to 30% of urban traffic is just people cruising around whilst looking for a space. If everyone has the same car, then why bother owning it at all? Summon an empty one on your phone, hop in, hop out right outside your destination, and the GCar then nips away to ferry on the next person.

No insurance. No MOT. No car park fees.

Hello to better long-distance public transport

25mph cars aren’t much cop for long distance stuff, and keeping an old fashioned thing in the garage solely for the odd occasions you trundle down the M6 to see granny is just daft.

Cue a massive increase in public pressure to upgrade our railway capacity to something suitable for the future. Hurrah!

Hello to happier lungs in the city

The GCar is electric.

In the UK that generally means fossil fuels are being burnt somewhere, but at least there’s no exhaust fumes emitted at the point of use. That means cleaner air on the streets, which means cleaner lungs, which means people live healthier and longer (and cost us less in taxes via the NHS).

When we finally crack effective electricity generation without burning dead things, this gets even better.

The best thing ever for privacy on the road?

An unexpected one to finish with, which I’ve stolen from The Verge’s article of the same name.

Instinctively, you feel that a driverless car would be awful for your privacy. After all, it would know who you are, where and when you’re travelling, and would have to ask questions of the big Google mind-in-the-sky in order to calculate a route.

T.C. Sottek (who seems to have been initialled rather than actually named) argues that, in America at least, this instinct could be wrong. You’re already tracked by a host of devices wherever you go, particularly if you’re carrying a mobile phone. However, in 2011 in the US 42% of ‘involuntary encounters’ with the police occurred when the encounteree was behind the wheel of a car. Many of those people, having been stopped for a human mistake like speeding, were subsequently searched (at times with horrifying over-enthusiasm). 68.1% of that 42% (or 29% of the total encounters with police) would never occur if the car you were in automatically drove itself perfectly.

Et tu?

That’s a very rose-tinted viewpoint, but every aspect is a real possibility if as a culture we throw some enthusiasm behind the idea. Pleasingly, the UK Government is currently pondering how the Highway Code needs to adapt to allow for driverless cars, and positioning ourselves as a nation at the forefront of a driving revolution can only be a good thing.

So, over to you. Anything I’ve missed? Or do you think this is all going to end in tears?


Add Yours →

Always dubious of any link that includes the words “anal probe” in the URL…

Everything you’ve said sounds sensible and reasonable and makes me quite excited about living IN THE FUTURE.

Combine with Tesla’s seemingly endless supply of “well I’ll be, that’s just a sensible way of doing things”, and the automotive industry starts looking very exciting indeed IMHO.

(Also, was very tempted to cram in as many HL chapter references as I could…)

I’m glad they didn’t go unnoticed :)

The link is work safe, honest! Initially highlighted by the Lowering The Bar blog on American law case, which is hilarious. Treat yourself and put an hour aside to dig through it.

Tesla do appear to have been remarkably decent (they’ve relaxed the restrictions on a load of their electric car patents). Possibly a promising development in the patent-war that seems to be going on…

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