The age of the driverless car is upon us. Again.


MoreBikes.co.uk and MotorCycle Monthly publisher Steve Rose isn’t impressed with the idea of drivers having even more control taken away from them…

Before I did this for a living I was a research scientist. And in that work you soon come to realise the value of a good headline. When your funding is coming to an end the most important thing is to generate some crazy story about how white wine gives you cancer/cures cancer/ prevents hair loss/weight loss/impotence – whatever, the only thing that matters is that your research somehow becomes valuable and you get more funding. The best I ever saw was a story about toxic snails that could kill you unless we invested more money in snail toxicology or summat.

I was thinking the other week about how 2014 has been the first year for decades when we (motorcyclists) haven’t been faced with some kind of imminent threat of legislative extinction? This is the season when we usually hear tales of speed caps, power restrictions, black boxes monitoring our riding, super-MoTs that will kill biking or compulsory Day-Glo boots etc. But not this year. Maybe it’s because the politicians are distracted with upcoming elections or maybe it’s just because they’ve realised that it’s all a waste of time.

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So much of this talk relies on technology and the truth is that while the tech might work on a bench or the confines of a trade show, on the road in day-to-day use, it’s rubbish. Last year, I got a new car – a VW Golf, which I chose because, generally VWs ignore the sensational and just build simple, functional cars…properly. Somehow I managed to choose a version that has an electronic handbrake, an additional and entirely separate electronic device that hold the brakes on at a standstill, radar-controlled cruise control that automatically adjusts the speed when it gets too close to a car in front and swivelling headlights that see round corners.

All of which have broken within the first 4000 miles. It turns out the radar sensor for the cruise control can be adversely affected by a build-up of insects or mud, or snow. Or being hit by something thrown up from the road. Which would be fine if it wasn’t mounted right in the firing line of all of this under the front number plate. No wonder it stopped working.

There was a piece on the news last month about the latest generation of driverless cars – set to revolutionise commuting which presumably rely on the same technology as my wayward Golf, to not bump into things and run your children over. How many miles will they do before their sensors fail or get clogged up? And what happens next? Do they just come to a halt or plough through a hedge, into a school and massacre a class full of infants?

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What happens when 50% of traffic has this technology and the rest doesn’t? On my car the cruise control adjusts speed by shutting the throttle, not hitting the brakes, so it’s possible the bike following might not realise I am slowing rapidly when something pulls out into the outside lane ahead of me and no brake lights come on. Is the daily commute through London set to become the equivalent of a computer controlled demolition derby, resulting in a large pile of broken, twitching plastic at every junction each morning? If that happens then I’m guessing the only transport that has any chance of getting through will be a motorcycle or scooter.

We’ve become obsessed with solving problems through electronics and no one looks for an analogue solution anymore. Which is a shame because analogue more often than not involves a person making a decision and no matter how dim or distracted a person might be, I’d rather take my chances going up against a working brain than an algorithm.

I once read a fascinating article comparing the abilities of the simplest brains with those of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence. Put simply, Honda’s Asimo robot might be able to do impressive things…for a robot, but in truth, your average goldfish knocks it into a cocked hat.

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Let’s take the simple act of controlling a throttle. We have a sensory system capable of detecting hazards long before they occur because we have learned to interpret the data around us in a presumptive and predictive manner that a machine based on sensors will never learn to replicate. When a machine detects a car alongside, it has no idea that the driver is texting and drinking coffee while steering with their knees and so has no idea that it is about to veer right into your path.

Plus, the muscles in your arms and fingers are capable of movements a million times quicker with more sensitivity than any hydraulic pistons and pincers. In a contest between man and machine to read a situation and react to it, man wins every time. There is no contest. And just because someone can develop an app for your phone that detects whether your shoelaces are about to come undone, that doesn’t mean we can trust them to develop software to reliably stop a car-droid hacking your legs off at a junction.

And the legislators know that, which is why they’ve stopped dreaming up ever-more ridiculous schemes involving spies-in-the-sky/cab/helmet etc. Thankfully for us, most countries have transport testing facilities staffed by highly intelligent people who actually trial these things properly and their conclusions are almost certainly that (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘there’s no F-ing way I’m signing-off that crock of s*%t.’

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Except, in the last few weeks it has all come back. Maybe the bosses are on holiday, maybe some transport research laboratory’s funding is coming to an end meaning they need to get a story into the news. Whatever, suddenly these daft stories are all over the place again.

Personally, I’d rather take my chances with the killer snails.

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