By William J. Furney
Many people of driving age seem to react with horror at the thought of their vehicular autonomy being snatched away from them as the prospect of computers at the wheel increasingly becomes likely. And, they reason, it would be so incredibly dangerous and result in carnage on the roads.
The same people climb aboard a metal tube that soars tens of thousands of feet into the air and stays there often for many hours on end, and it’s mainly computers doing the flying, with pilots only along for the ride, and to reassure anxious passengers that humans really are in control, even if they’re not.
Traveling by plane really is the safest form of transport, with not one fatal accident during commercial passenger-jet flights last year, even as the number of flights rose. This compares mightily with the vast tragedy of over 1.25 million people losing their lives on the roads around the world each year.
So who’s kidding who in the apparent Driving Vs Flying safety debate when computers generally run the latter and up to now it’s just error-prone humans — many of whom are drunk or high or deathly tired — in control of vehicles?
The hysterical media love to scream when a self-driving car goes awry. It’s no wonder public trust in the media is at an all-time low, and #FakeNews is the buzzword of our time. Let’s try accelerating towards some perspective, and actual truth, for a change.
Many large manufacturers are now getting into the computerised-driving game, as it really does seem to be the way forward and so very much safer than just having people take the wheel. Computer and phone company Apple, the richest firm in the world, after it became the first to reach a $1-trillion valuation last month, is developing its own self-driving car — and one of its test vehicles happened to get rear-ended during a test the other day. Shock! Horror! In newsrooms all over the world!
Make no mistake: billions of dollars are being poured into self-driving vehicles, including from Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, and General Motors. There were no injuries in the Apple incident, which happened when the vehicle was attempting to merge into highway traffic and was rammed by another. However, an Uber self-driving test car hit a woman in March and killed her; the ride-hailing company’s self-driving programme is currently on hold, which is probably a good thing anyway, seeing as how Uber is losing billions of dollars a year ($4.5 billion in 2017).
Obviously the Uber accident was a tragedy, but it’s nothing compared to the slaughter on the roads around the world, and if computers can help to save lives in getting us around on the ground, all the better. But it hasn’t stopped Toyota from giving Uber a cool $500 million to help develop the American start-up’s computer-driven car initiative. A Toyota exec said the “investment marks an important milestone in our transformation to a mobility company as we help provide a path for safe and secure expansion of mobility services like ride-sharing that includes Toyota vehicles and technologies.”
Just imagine the freedom you would have to do as you like while not trying to navigate the crammed streets, battle with other drivers and try to work out what on earth your satnav is babbling on about. You could work, doze, catch up on social media or just stare out at the world you’re passing blithely by.
There is nothing to fear in four-wheeled progress, people, and it’s way past time we gave up our own, out-of-control control of our vehicles.
In Indonesia, my family and I were lucky to have drivers, and although there were difficulties with them — demanding more pay even though they were paid well, not showing up, crashing into banana trucks (in Bali) — it was a totally amazing way to travel. Just replace the human driver with some computer chips and it will be all the better, and certainly won’t drive us around the bend.