Not too long ago Nic Lowe, one of GoGet Carshare’s founders, made a prediction about self-driving cars: “One day there’s going to be a container ship arrive on a dock somewhere in Sydney and there’s going to be 300 self-driving cars drive out of it… The day that ship arrives is the day everything changes.”
How will everything change when the robot cars arrive? First, self-driving cars almost certainly mean that there will be no point in actually owning a vehicle anymore. After all, the average car sits unused 23 hours a day. A self-driving car would pretty much never not be in use. It could take you to work, pick someone else up for a trip to the airport, pick someone up at the airport for a trip back into town, and so on, hour after hour, day after day. Self-driving would also transform trucking, improving safety and efficiency. Already mine sites are replacing drivers with robots, and the State of Florida in the United States has authorised the use of driverless trucks for highway construction, to lower the risk for highway workers.
Surely the robot car apocalypse is right around the corner? Well, probably not. It turns out the problem is us: humans. Google has put millions of miles on its fleet of self-driving vehicles and we’ve watched them evolve from clunky compacts loaded with cumbersome technology to sleek little bubble cars zipping about California. If anyone knows about self-driving cars, it’s probably Google, but recently the company has come clean about the human issue. It’s clearly the biggest challenge to the kind of widespread adoption of the vehicles that will lead to lower accident deaths and incredible transport ease.
Since Google’s self-driving testing began, the cars have been involved in 16 crashes, all of them due to human error. Sometimes it is the so-called safety driver applying the brakes too soon, but most of the time it’s about the robot car being a goody two-shoes. Programmed to obey the letter of the law, Google cars are possibly too cautious. Instead of cutting in front of someone when that might be the safest option, the cars might hang back. At one four-way crossing, a self-driving test car became permanently stuck because the human drivers kept creeping forward seeking advantage and confounding the robot car’s sensors and algorithms. Or what about eye contact that helps traffic flow? Sometimes drivers signal each other in subtle, human ways that a self-driving car has no way of detecting no matter how good its laser pointer is.
The upshot of all this is that while the technology is progressing at an astonishing rate – Google has already solved that four-way intersection thing by making its vehicles a tad more aggressive – there is probably a long way to go before the last human driver exits the road. But still, with many new cars equipped with increasing levels of autonomy, and drivers getting more and more distracted by their gadgets, it pays to be prepared for a day when robot cars will rule the road. Lowe’s GoGet has done that by partnering with UNSW to learn as much as possible about how self-driving cars will work on an Australian road – the result has been Ethel the Yaris, who one of these days might just start driving herself around.