A number of futuristic movies I have seen over past decades have us commuting in flying cars of sorts. Imagine all of that traffic we see at peak hour in major cities flying through the air. Hmm, I think to myself, that ain’t going to work. Some drivers are crazy enough when constrained by gravity.
Ah, but you misunderstand, says a far-sighted interlocutor. Computers will prevent crashes. What, I scoff! Computers will control millions of flying cars at a time? Yes, there will be no human flying drivers; it will all be controlled by computers. This will be the age of AI – artificial intelligence to you, Mr Neanderthal.
I want to know what’s happened to this airborne future. All this business of flying cars has subsided and apparently we are going to be still stuck on roads, albeit while sipping G&Ts in the back seats while computers do the driving. Never mind, progress is progress. According to Toby Walsh, a professor of AI, “we will look back in 20 years’ time and the era of human-driven cars will look like the Wild West.” Professor Walsh isn’t alone. I simply picked on him as the latest chap I had read on the subject.
My friends, or at least those around when the topic has come up, all think that driverless cars are the ant’s pants; an inevitable part of our bountiful technological future. They don’t seem to suffer from my scepticism. Let me be crystal. I don’t buy it.
On the cover of this latest article I read was a picture of a sleek, unaffordable (for most of us) Ferrari. In the driverless era I won’t care about it being unaffordable. I won’t want it. Who will? You get into a ‘box’ which delivers you to your destination. You don’t drive it! You don’t have the pleasure of driving it! You will sit in the back as us kids used to do when my dad drove us to the seaside, with anything but the car’s performance and looks on your mind.
Pretty soon no-one would buy Ferraris or Jaguars or Lamborghinis. They would buy different size boxes or perhaps just rent them or simply call them up from communal pools of boxes. So my first point. Please futurists don’t draw straight lines from the present. If driverless cars were to totally take over they wouldn’t look like today’s cars and wouldn’t be owned in the same way.
To my second point, what is produced is always informed by what people want not just by what can be produced. Now people’s preferences can be moulded to an extent but only to an extent. My guess is that young people and many middle-aged and older people like the driving experience and in as good a car as they can afford. Kindle and other electronic readers have been around for a while and made significant inroads into printed books but the switch appears to have plateaued. People like printed books. Even vinyl records have made a comeback of sorts. No matter how much you pack onto a smart phone people want to view sports on a big screen.
To my third point, why in the world do we think that people will be clever enough to develop and manage computer systems that will co-ordinate millions of cars at a time? They are not near clever enough in my experience. And, no, there are no caches of super humans around. Look in the mirror and be afraid, everyone is like you, susceptible to bungling. Back comes my pesky interlocutor: Everything is possible in this scientific age; AI will see to that. No it won’t, I respond stubbornly.
I admit that this view of mine is a gut reaction. But, for instance, who is going to put in the algorithms to deal with a child running in front of a car? Swerve, accelerate and quickly cut back in, might be the best response, if there no time to brake and there is fast approaching oncoming traffic; unless a car is immediately to the side or a mother and pram is also crossing the road ahead – but maybe it is only a dog? How much does a dog matter? Does the size of the dog matter? Is it possible to swerve left into open ground? Is there a deep drain in-between? Are people picnicking there? Will having one, two or three young grandchildren onboard affect the decision? Now think of hundreds of different scenarios and variables within which judgments and trade-offs are involved. Human brains can potentially take in each unique situation and react instinctively and often appropriately. Computers? There is no way.
And exactly how fast will these driverless cars go — the millions of them — and who will decide? And then there is hacking and please don’t tell me that our major traffic AI networks will be hack-proof. Unless, that is, only conservatives are hired to run the show. Allegedly, the Russians demonstrated how devilishly clever they can be in persuading left-wing (US Democrat) dimwits to give them their log-in details.
It is all very well to have experimental trials. The real thing will present insuperable problems. I predict it will never happen. At the same time, the technology and experiments will make cars and driving safer and that is all to the good. You see, I’m as ready as the next man or woman to embrace new technology. There’s not a Neanderthal neuron in my brain; at least not many anyway.
By the way, never discussed in this world of driverless cars are motor bikes (and bicycles for that matter). Or are they to become casualties of this brave new world? Even the most imaginative would surely baulk at the notion of driverless motorbikes. Hells Angels would suffer egregious reputational damage if those throbbing machines between their legs had balancing training wheels and were controlled by computer nerds.