Monday 17 October 2016

Self Driving Carpocaplypse?

Why yes, that is a silly, clickbaity title. Thanks for noticing. But, sorry, it is true.

Lots of cycling folk have commented on self driving cars. Some are enthusiastic, talking about the flaw in car design being the meat-pack in control, and how having machine like reflexes at the heart of a computer driven miracle of modernity will save cyclists lives by spotting cyclists earlier and reacting faster. Others have been rather more pessimistic. Auto-cars will of necessity require cyclists be excluded from road space such that robotic abominations against nature can reach maximum efficiency in dystopian nightmare of hyper-connected communication.

I think that both argument's have some merit. Humans do tend not to look where they're going, so having a machine do it isn't a bad idea. And yes, there's a risk that the most efficient use of space is one where every vehicle 'thinks' basically the same - but I think that the take-up of autonomous cars (stupid name, lets call them auto-cars or something) will be slow enough such that they'll have to have programming to work around other vehicles from the outset.

What worries me more is that, conceptually, they have to be designed to kill pedestrians.

Imagine, if you will, the typical urban main-road. You know the sort. Its the main road of a market town that should be charming but isn't because all you can see and hear is cars. Or a city street with four lanes of drivers going nowhere fast but conspiring to make the route un-crossable. You eye up the first motorist, he doesn't give an inch, you keep walking to the quarter of a mile away crossing hoping that a gap will appear, but it doesn't. No matter how often you think you've made contact you can never see a way across all four lanes. Maybe you make a dash for it - only to get half way across and stand there terrified until a softer-hearted driver grudgingly lets you cross. 

What stopped you from crossing? Are the drivers morally superiority so you're showing them deference? Do they have a greater right to get where they're going than you do? No, of course not - the dominance of motor vehicles in public space is only possible on one basis. The very real, ever present, and utterly terrifying threat of violence. You can't cross the road, even when the drivers gain nothing from stopping you, because the motorist can kill or maim you, and is not absolutely required by law not to do so. There isn't sufficient legal or moral pressure on the motorist to ensure the safety of pedestrians crossing the road such that we can step off the pavement. Drivers are bullying you not to cross.

Imagine the same road full of auto-cars. Intelligent, safe, auto-cars that are designed to spot pedestrians who want to cross, or who have entered the road space, and therefore to stop. Now imagine what the impact of that is in a crowded city centre. Come on, be honest, do you walk way up the road to the crossing point and back up to where you want to go or do you just step out and stop the traffic to get over?  Keep your imagination fired up for a moment longer - now there's not just you looking to cross, there's a stream of people wanting to cross the constant, terrifying maelstrom of traffic. If that stream of people know that they each of them can stop the cars, don't they just do that? At their own leisure, when and where they choose? Of course they do.

Can you now think what that'd be like in the car? Travel sick doesn't even begin to cover it. You'd get nowhere, you'd be forever stuck in the city centre at rush hour - and in those cities where the evening revelers merge into the homeward-bound commuters, you might be there all night. 

Bluntly, the only way we'll be able to make auto-cars work is if we intentionally program them to risk killing people. If we don't give them the capacity to prioritise getting a passenger home over the safety of those outside the cars, they'll fail. They won't, and can't, work.

We already know that Mercedes Benz are designing cars that'll kill those outside the car if it saves the person inside the car. That is the only way this technology can work.

Be afraid. The autocalypse is coming. And its one where pedestrians come last.

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