Driverless cars are out of our control

Scepticism about automatic transport is nothing new. Robert Hume looks back at more than a century of misgivings.
Driverless cars are out of our control

Safer than conventional cars — there were 159 fatal collisions on Ireland’s roads last year — self-driving cars stay patient when human drivers get stressed, and can always concentrate. Ever-vigilant cameras and sensors keep them safe.

Well, so we’re told. But a Google self-driving car crashed itself into a bus last Valentine’s Day, as it pulled out at a junction in Silicon Valley, California. Apparently, it made an “incorrect assumption” about where the bus would go. So much for the car’s accident avoidance programme.

Since then we’ve had the first fatality. In Florida, on May 7, Joshua Brown was killed when the automatic braking sensors in his Tesla Model S failed and he smashed into a tractor-trailer at over 100km/h.

Small, electric driverless buses should be environmentally friendly, and cheap to operate — you don’t have to pay a driver’s wages. But in Holland, designers of a six-seater driverless bus (the WePod shuttle), which crawled at 8km/h for 200m beside a lake at Wageningen in January, are hesitant in operating the vehicle in what they call “challenging conditions”, such as rush hour traffic, bad weather, and... night time.

Championed as economical, and free from human error, driverless trains operate successfully today on London’s Docklands Light Railway.

However, during a test run in Lathen, northwest Germany, on September 22, 2006, a driverless high-speed magnetic levitation train ploughed into a maintenance truck, killing 23 people.

With no driver to alert, passengers who had gathered at the front to look through the train’s panoramic window, watched in horror as it slammed into the vehicle at 170km/h.

A human presence avoided catastrophe in March 2012, when a five-year-old boy slipped between a train and the platform edge at Finchley Road Tube station, London.

The new automatic system gave the all-clear for the train to go, but a driver — who was on board only because mayor Boris Johnson’s pledge to go driverless had not yet been implemented — suddenly saw a tiny hand reaching up from the track, and prevented the train moving off, saving the life of a five-year-old boy.

Unlike in trains, autopilot is routinely used in aircraft, preventing the crew from tiring. It leaves them free to look out for traffic and monitor all the plane’s systems. Automated adjustments are also smoother, giving passengers a more comfortable flight.

Lawrence Sperry first demonstrated autopilot to spellbound crowds in Paris in 1914, leaving the cockpit of his plane and standing on a wing. But many thought the gadget was impractical, a circus stunt.

Some air crashes since have been blamed on pilots being unable to disengage autopilot, or becoming too dependent on it. Aeroflot Flight 593 crashed into mountains in Russia on March 23, 1994.

In the cockpit were the pilot’s 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, and one of them had turned off the system. The pilot never regained control, and all 63 passengers and 12 crew died.

Automation has proven perilous even in technology as basic as elevators. The first lift that didn’t need an attendant to press the buttons was trialled in 1900. On the night of May 22 1903, 17 young people squeezed into an automatic lift at the Electric Mechanical Institute in Pittsburgh on their way to attend a ball.

Just as the lift reached the sixth floor, it began to sway, before suddenly plummeting down the shaft. Four passengers died, and the others were crushed under the massive lift weights.

Only 10 to 12 people should have been inside, but there was no attendant to tell them the lift was full. Almost 50 years passed before the public got used to automatic lifts.

The UK’s first escalator (or “moving staircase”) at Harrod’s department store in Knightsbridge, London, had been introduced more cautiously in 1898.

While the company enthusiastically promoted the “exhilarating” device that would waft ladies and gentlemen from floor to floor, “without the least effort”, it was also concerned that nervous customers might be traumatised by their ordeal, and instructed shop assistants to wait at the top to offer them smelling salts and brandy.

Our love affair with robotic transport extends back to Leonardo da Vinci’s 17th century designs for self-propelled clockwork carts, through medieval broomsticks, to the magic carpet — the must-have driverless car of ancient myth.

The great library at Alexandria hired out small flying carpets so its readers could glide niftily from shelf to shelf.

King Solomon became so proud of his magnificent green and gold magic carpet — it measured 60 miles by 60 miles (or 96km by 96km), and was studded with precious stones — that God decided to punish him.

While flying in mid-air, he shook it, dashing 40,000 passengers to their deaths, but Solomon was spared.

Another unfortunate accident befell the Emir of Al Kharid in Year 76 of the Fifth Age, when he tragically mistook an ordinary, unenchanted, carpet for his magic one. Having jumped from a high tower at his palace, he realised, too late, that he had grabbed the wrong carpet, and plunged to his death.

Some citizens called for magic carpets to be banned, and they remained unpopular for almost a century.

Aren’t today’s driverless cars just as far down the road?

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