First the horse was sent to the knacker’s yard: now the driver faces redundancy. In the Queen’s Speech, the Government will announce, a bit more than a century after horseless carriages came in, measures to promote driverless cars.
Politicians love being on the side of progress. Harold Wilson made a good thing of it in his party conference speech in 1963, in which he envisaged a Britain “forged in the white heat” of the scientific revolution, which was already, he assured his listeners, taking place in the Soviet Union:
“A Labour Government would initiate a State-sponsored chemical engineering consortium to meet the needs, not only of Eastern Europe, but far more important, of developing Commonwealth countries. We would train and we would mobilise chemical engineers to design the plants that the world needs…”
In Ben Pimlott’s tremendously enjoyable biography of Wilson, we find the theme of the speech only decided upon, and worked up into a script, the night before it is delivered, though it is based on an idea contributed some months earlier by Richard Crossman, who had urged the party leader: “You make your big speech on Labour in the Science Age.”
One suspects a similar process lies behind the Government’s decision to advertise its support for driverless cars, and also for drones and commercial spaceports. There is a need to fill up a vacuous Queen’s Speech with stuff so fashionable no one will dare object to it.
In 1963, the Soviet Union was fashionable, and was said to be increasing its productivity at such a rate that it would soon overtake our own, which was being held back by our out-dated class system and the State’s failure to tell industry what to do. Wilson saw his chance and within a few months became Prime Minister.
In 2016, driverless cars are fashionable. According to the Guardian, “The self-driving car market is currently growing at 16 per cent a year and could be worth up to £900 billion worldwide by 2025.”
This sort of boosterism, complete with imaginary figures, is found all over the place. Google and Apple are investing in the technology, and according to the BBC, the Chinese city of Wuhu is also embracing driverless vehicles.
Once again, we find ourselves in danger of being left behind by the Commies and the Yanks.
But do not despair. Volvo will next year “run self-driving versions of its family 4x4s on roads around London”, and experiments with driverless vehicles are already under way on the pavements of Greenwich and Milton Keynes.
The first fatal accident in this country involving a horseless carriage occurred in August 1896. Driverless cars are said, by their promoters, to be much safer than those steered by human beings: according to the propaganda, we can look forward to a steep fall in the number of fatalities caused by traffic accidents, which killed 1775 people in 2014 (though that in turn was less than a quarter of the level in the worst peacetime year for such accidents, 1966, when 7,985 people were killed).
And that will lead to far lower insurance premiums, with the motor insurance business pretty much collapsing.
For these optimistic forecasts to prove true, the technology will, however, have to go on improving. Google recently reported that in California, one of its self-driving cars, while moving at the admirably restrained speed of two miles an hour, collided with a bus going at 15 miles an hour.
The driver of the bus wrongly imagined the self-driving car would not move into its path. As Google said, “This type of misunderstanding happens between human drivers on the road every day.”
The company added: “We hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.”
Perhaps the technology will become so versatile that within a few years, driverless cars will become safer and more widespread than those with drivers. Human beings will continue to find sporting and recreational uses for the car, just as they do for the horse, but for practical, everyday purposes, a driver will be superfluous.
Will people accept such a change? Will they be happy to have computer-driven cars whizzing past them at 70 miles an hour, or whatever the speed limit has become?
John Beckford, a Visiting Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University College, London, sent me a long list of unanswered questions about such vehicles, ending with this one:
“Many rail vehicle drivers who have been driving a train that has been involved in a fatal (and most are) collision between a train and a human being, never drive a train again – because they are powerless to change the outcome of an event that they can see happening, however hard they try. Imagine how much worse that would be if you couldn’t even try because the driverless car has control.”
Beckford also referred to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, of which the first is that “a robot may not injure a human being”, and posed this question:
“My driverless car is on the M1 at 70mph in a road train of 50 vehicles – a person runs out or drops from a bridge (or looks like they are going to) – do I (robocar) run them over or crash into one of the cars around me and perhaps injure the 50-plus people in the other cars?”
Travelling in a driverless car would entail a curious kind of powerlessness. Perhaps one feels something of this when on a train, or in a passenger aircraft. But in a smaller vehicle, the inability to intervene might be harder to accept: though I suppose computers might be developed at which one can bark orders, or to which one can make requests, as to a taxi driver.
One reason why I so enjoy bicycling round London is the sense that I am, at a very modest level, making all my own decisions. And that is what gives many motorists (though not in cities) their sense of freedom: the open road.
My guess is that just as millions of us prefer a manual gearbox to the supposedly easier automatic, so most of us will choose to remain in control of our cars, with the electronics there to assist us rather than to take over. Power-assisted steering and satellite navigation are fine: giving up control is not.
The driverless cars project is a fantasy, more appealing to politicians and corporations in search of the big new thing, than to free men and women who value what they already have, and are determined not to find themselves supplanted.