A couple of days ago, I posted a note on Google’s receiving approval to test its driverless cars in Nevada. If the technology proves successful, and is adopted to any significant extent, it will probably change how we drive, and how we think about driving, possibly in unexpected ways.
The BBC News Magazine has an article on how some of those changes might play out. Some of the changes would very likely be positive. An automated driver will not be talking or texting on a cell phone, sightseeing, or otherwise diverting its attention to something other than driving. It will not be sleepy or intoxicated, and will have faster reaction times than a human driver. That should mean fewer crashes. Automated driving might also allow more traffic to be carried on the same roadway, because cars could travel closer together, particularly if vehicles are able to communicate with each other, as in the “road train” experiments. The automated driver can also be programmed to avoid human drivers’ dangerous behavior.
When the car is on self-driving mode, it doesn’t speed, it doesn’t cut you off, it doesn’t tailgate.
Some of the changes suggested in the article seem to me a bit more problematic. It suggests that the technology might make auto use available to people who currently, because of physical infirmities, cannot drive, such as the elderly, or people with epilepsy. The article also suggests that a self-driving car could, in effect, run errands on its own.
A car could take the children to school early in the morning, then return home on its own to pick up the parents for their commute.
After a late-night carouse, a drinker could find and reserve a hire car on their phone, then have it pick them up and drive them home.
I’m sure that, properly used, the technology could make driving safer, and allow some people to drive who would otherwise be only marginally capable. But the idea of having the vehicle operate without at least one competent adult along, in case of emergency, strikes me as ill-advised; I hope that we will require a lot of evidence of the technology’s reliability before we begin that experiment.