A lot of people are concerned about whether driverless cars will be safe in cities, and you can see why. But tonight I wondered whether perhaps they can’t come soon enough…
Over a century ago, driving a car was hard. There were a whole set of levers (levers!) you had to operate, and if you ran out of petrol or oil you were screwed – there were more velodromes or stables than petrol stations in those days. But everyone took it pretty seriously, and you couldn’t go all that fast. So accidents, although everyone worried about them, were rare(ish).
Fifty years later, it all changed. Ford et al had made driving a car far, far, easier, and they were much, much more powerful. People got a lot sloppier, and (until safety features came in) the accident rate soared.
Tonight I had a fairly close shave at a lights with some bloke in a Lexus. He had three – three – LCD screens in the car, and was tapping away on his phone while gently wobbling sideways to squash me on the nearside (he was overtaking, I wasn’t filtering inside, before anyone complains). It wasn’t that fast and I’m experienced enough that dealt with it, but we see this played out every day on the roads in cities.
Here’s the thing: would a driverless car have done worse? I doubt it.
I’ve realised that we’re already living with driverless cars – in the sense that most people are safe enough, and distracted enough, in their cars that they’re not really paying attention. On the motorway or a small town you can get away with it most of the time. But in London, with pedestrians, bikes, and generally more stuff, these can become lethal lapses of concentration.
So if we’re already living in a functionally driverless city, why not do the real thing? Allow only driverless cars in the centre, or those driven by humans with extra qualifications and no distracting electronic devices. It might be more unsafe. But I doubt it.