Published on April 22nd, 2016 | by David Bott and Paul Jennings


Is it better to travel or arrive?

Dr David Bott is a Principal Fellow at WMG, and Paul Jennings is Professor of Experiential Engineering.  Professor Jennings also leads WMG’s Energy and Electrical Systems research group.

People both like and are scared of change. We are forever imagining how the future could be different, but then spend a lot of time worrying about how bad it might be without remembering why we wanted to change in the first place. In most cases this means that we anticipate and deal with the problems involved in the change, but it can also delay and even stop that change if it is not balanced.

There is a lot of talk about driverless cars at the moment, the current cause being the fact that Google’s driverless car crashed into a bus. All of a sudden, driverless cars are a threat rather than the boon they used to be. However, a rather cursory investigation shows that the current situation is far from ideal and there are, on average, over 17000 accidents a day in the US (500 in UK), and around 100 people involved in them die (5 in the UK) – but this doesn’t merit mention in most places. Viewed in this light, the driverless car might be a lot safer. Bu the arc of this scary narrative then questions who is responsible for an accident involving a driverless car? Is it the manufacturer or the passenger? (This vaguely adversarial version of the question makes it a simple binary choice and ignores the possibility that ownership models may change and the passenger may be renting the car from a third party). It is right to ask these questions, but it is also useful to look at the current situation as well as this potential future.

Let’s start with the accident itself. Over 90% of accidents are attributed to people. When we concentrate, we are usually quite good at driving, observing and risk assessing the world around us as it changes, monitoring the condition of the car and so on. When we are tired or distracted, we are a lot less safe. And distraction can come from phone calls (with or without the need to manually control the phone), conversations with passengers, being carried away with the mood of the music we are listening to, or angry with the news radio station we are listening to (it is worth pointing out how we profess to enjoy these other activities!). Sensors which monitor the world around through many means are more likely to spot a danger and computers dedicated to quantifying the outside world never get tired and cannot be distracted. They are undoubtedly quicker at making the calculations required to avoid an accident, but cars have mass and cannot be stopped or turned instantaneously (although the computers can calculate the effect of these factors too, unlike most human drivers), and so the implementation of a rapidly calculated avoidance plan might not be successful – but neither would it be under human control. The requirement though is for algorithms that cover all the possible situations the car will find itself in. That is why Google is driving its cars around California – to test what they have and see where it is lacking.

The responsibility for an accident once it has happened is something we need to agree on – but that is all that is required. It seems to be generally accepted that the organisation that has designed and produced (manufacturing and programming) the mechanism (in this case, the driverless car) is responsible for its actions – the “passenger” has no control over the event. If the car is rented or hired and the organisation who owns it is not the manufacturer, then they might be liable. This usually leads to a discussion about what this means for insurance. Business is usually quite good at apportioning cost, so either the cost of insurance would be bundled in if the sale was outright, or included in the rental or hire charges if the “ownership” of the car was temporary. It’s simply something we need to agree on, not a showstopper.

Another common worry is the change from where we are now to any potential future. Will “driver support” be introduced gradually to all cars – as it almost is at the moment? Can we envisage roads full of driverless and driven cars at the same time? Will the computer controlled cars be able to cope with the imaginative ways the human drivers deal with situations? It seems likely that the first driverless cars will be confined to their own part of the road (like buses and taxis are supposed to be in many large cities) and trialled where they can be of most use relieving other forms of transport. There are suggestions that on motorways, human drivers will mimic the driverless platoons of vehicles by driving closer together and compromise their own safety, but this might just be an educational challenge.

But why should we change anyway?

Although there are times when some people enjoy driving, for most of us, most of the time, it is a chore. We need to be somewhere else, with or without other people, and the “thrill of the open road” is more usually the frustration of congestion and stationary traffic. We do not express the desire to fly the plane we travel on, or drive the train we take to work, why is it imperative to control the smaller vehicle we use for some trips? Surely the opportunity to travel without responsibility would be better – we could make those phone calls or listen to the news or the music we would rather focus on and relax. In the UK, we apparently each spend more than 230 hours driving each year – equivalent to about working 60 days! Perhaps we could use that time more effectively?

A lot of our journeys are made on mass public transport, where the providers choose to “supply” routes taken by enough travellers that mean they can cost effectively address our needs. But they rarely cover the final sector of a journey. Some of us take taxis to cover this more personal travel, but again cost is a factor not control of the vehicle. We will probably always have something that resembles a car in our travel options and so the question is how can we make that option safe, relaxing and easy. Not driving is surely a good answer, and the driverless car can provide us with the best of both worlds. We set out to use technology to make our lives easier – but seem to be more worried by what our desire may lead to than embracing the progress that has been made.

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David Bott is Principal Fellow at WMG. After 26 years with BP, Courtaulds and ICI, spent in both their corporate centres and business units, David began a love affair with start-ups 10 years ago. He was diverted into spending 7 years setting up and directing the Technology Strategy Board (now rebranded as Innovate UK), the UK's innovation agency.

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