Auto Cruise

Sorry, drifting close to politics here.

There has been much said recently regarding self driving cars.  This seemingly Sci-fi idea is getting very close to becoming a reality as companies like Google are developing systems that can reliably navigate urban environments without mowing down pedestrians.  It really is exciting stuff.

Sadly this has given a mass of clueless pundits a stick to beat any public transport project with.  Mention purchasing new buses, or worse, building railways and out they come shouting “this is obsolete technology, driverless cars are the future”. Usually combined with a demand to build more roads instead, unsurprisingly something that will help them in the short term while doing very little for everyone else who relies on public transport.

The argument sounds tempting, why should a government invest in railways when we will soon be whizzing to our destination in our personal travel pod?

The argument has two problems.

First, the argument is a bit like saying we shouldn’t build coal/nuclear fission/wind/tidal/giant bicycle power stations because Nuclear fusion is the future.  Or indeed don’t buy an electric car because hydrogen fuel cells are the future.  In short they probably are the future but are no where near there yet.

To give an idea of how distant self drive tech is, lets look at how common self drive elements are in today’s cars.  First, automatic parallel parking.  First commercially released around 2002 this tech has now filtered into several models of car as a high end extra.  Considering how long extras like cruise control have taken to become commonplace and that self driving cars have yet to leave the prototype phase, this is at least 5-10 years away from being a plaything for the rich let alone a standard feature.

Second, while some US states have passed laws to allow self driving cars there is still a sticking point over having entirely autonomous vehicles and with good reason.  Those who deride older forms of public transport see a futuristic dream where your car drops you off before driving away to park itself, returning when summoned to take the driver home again.  Sadly I see this as a pipe dream.  For the immediate future I can’t see laws allowing cars to operate without a human being on hand to take over.  Why?  Responsibility.  We currently technically have self flying aircraft.  A commercial jet can land on auto pilot, so why have a fallible human at the controls.  Partly it is a final backup but mainly because someone has to be responsible for the aircraft.  This is the same with a car.  While an automated vehicle is significantly less likely to be involved in an accident, nothing is impossible and when you get hit by a car with no driver who is to blame?  And while reading or watching a film while the car does  the driving would be OK being in any way unfit to drive, i.e. Drunk would be out of the question.  The closest to this would probably be a robotic taxi, where a person would observe the vehicle remotely with an override available.

We will see auto driving cars within the next decade but they are no reason to neglect the current public transport infrastructure.

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