A few years ago I was speaking at a conference near Colombo in Sri Lanka and the conference organiser had booked accommodation for me at the Taj Exotica in Bentota. This was about a thirty-minute drive from the conference centre and each day of the conference the organisers had arranged a car to collect me from my accommodation and drive me to the conference. The road was supposedly a two-lane road in each direction but the locals had not been informed of this simple fact. Lines on the road meant very little to the drivers there. It was all about the amount of room available on the road. If a car or bus or bike or Tuk-tuk or donkey could squeeze into a space, it would. At one stage I counted eight ‘vehicles’ across the four available lanes. By the last day I asked my driver if I could drive on this road as I thought it was the craziest driving experience I could imagine. By the time we arrived at the conference centre, the assessment given to me by my driver was that I was a ‘terrible’ driver. He said that I didn’t use my horn even once. I needed to use the horn regularly if I wanted to drive on these roads.
With that backdrop, think of just some of the challenges facing car makers as driverless cars are being developed. In the laboratory or on a computer screen the technology might seem to work with no problems at all. Drop that same technology into a real-world environment such as the streets around Colombo and you start to realise just how incredible the human brain is. A human looks at the chaos that is driving and makes a number of different decisions without us even thinking about it.
A driverless car has to have all of this information written in lines of code. Given the fact that current technology relies heavily on lines on a road, eight lanes into four is something that a current driverless car would struggle with.
Before we get to that point though, the largest roadblock (sorry – I did promise to reduce those puns this year) is the amount of trust people place in the technology. If you saw a car approaching and you were about to step onto a pedestrian crossing, would you trust that car to stop for you? If a human was behind the wheel, you would typically wait for eye contact to know that the driver was aware of you and then proceed. Where are the eyes of the driverless car? Well, that problem may be about to be somewhat solved.
Land Rover has developed a concept whereby a driverless car will project lights onto the road in front of the car to demonstrate direction and change in speed of the vehicle. A glance at the road in front of a car will show where it is headed and the distance between bars on the road will show if it is about to brake or accelerate. It does sound like a good idea in a pristine environment but I can see a confused number of lights on the road in front of vehicles. At least the manufacturers are thinking about the problem and trying to bring forward solutions.
One BMW board member is not convinced that driverless cars will ever be on the road. The ethical dilemma was cited as the biggest issue that Ian Robertson was concerned about. If a driverless car had to decide between hitting one person or another, how would it decide the course of action?
How does a human decide this same course of action? It would be difficult to think of many scenarios where these decisions are being made and with the inherently safer nature of driverless cars, I would suggest that there will be very few instances where this choice needs to be made.
It may just be a way of BMW trying to turn people away from the technology to cover the fact they are lagging other manufacturers. In relation to whether BMW, or any company, will be able to crack the magic code, I will leave the last words to the world’s most famous carmaker, Henry Ford. “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”