July, August 2016

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Tesla Motors in the USA recently disclosed the death of one of its test drivers. It appears that the autonomous – or self-driving – car was in collision with a truck at a non-controlled road junction. This news is both tragic and thought-provoking.

This technology is new and until it has fully evolved, there are going to be challenges. Eventually when all vehicles are autonomous and all road layouts and obstacles are included in the software, road deaths will be reduced dramatically. Total number of deaths on the roads globally currently runs at circa 1.3million annually, with another 50million injured or disabled.  Of the 172 countries listed, the UK contributes circa 1800 to this annual death rate, but don’t panic. If we look more closely, the UK’s global league table position in per capita terms, ranks it 169th out of 172 on the list. This is at the extremely low/safe end of the international table.

There are always 1-million people up in the air. Air traffic controllers have some computer assistance, and aircraft have collision avoidance systems, but it is still up to humans to make the ‘life-and-death’ decisions. Fully autonomous aircraft may come one day, but don’t hold your breath.

Autonomous car accidents, are going to keep the lawyers busy. It will also add ‘air-traffic-controllers’-stress’ to the job of the software engineers. What if an autonomous car cannot avoid an accident and has to choose between driving off a cliff or ploughing into pedestrians? What if it has to choose between killing a rich man or a poor man? Eventually autonomous cars will save the majority at the cost of a few.

Perhaps trust is the greatest challenge. I know people who won’t fly because they see it as dangerous. Pointing out that just about any other mode of transport, or any other activity is far more dangerous than commercial flying is pointless. Regardless of statistics and logic, trust is not there, so the non-flyers don’t fly.

Attaining trust with the general public will be the greatest challenge to the autonomous car industry. The media will headline any autonomous car accidents, adding to the complications. You may still be wondering about the title to these words. If you are not familiar with the computer named ‘Hal’ in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent 1968 movie, “2001 A Space Odyssey”, then you should watch it or at least some clips of Hal’s behaviour. Then ask yourself a question. Would you want Hal controlling your car?