Never mind driverless cars – we need intelligent transport systems – The Guardian

Posted: Sunday, August 02, 2015

I can picture now every strange quirk of the cars I rode in as a kid. The Ford Popular had indicators that were levers, jerking out to signal at the pull of a wire. The Morris Minor had a hole in the floor, beneath the carpet, so a child could pee without stopping on the overnight drive to Cornwall. The Ford Anglia was like a science-fiction vehicle made of chrome, rust and cream paint.

But in all of them there was one constant: the driver, wrestling the reluctant gear stick, calmly swerving around stray animals, always ready to respond to the inevitable red light on the dashboard by pulling over and fiddling with a wire until it went away. That was my dad, and he was only in the second generation of car drivers in his family. I am the third and if I’d had kids, they would have been the last. Because if the technology giants get their way, the era of the driverless car is coming – and that reassuring, male role thing of being master of a hurtling chunk of steel will soon be over.

There are advantages to this, of course – the most obvious of which will be the end of TV programmes fronted by old, racist car bores. But there are also downsides.

The driverless car revolution breaks down into three phases. The first, which we’re living through, is the introduction of automated decision-making technology into existing cars. My Audi A1, an automatic, changes down a gear if I tap the brake while driving downhill. Now there are “steer-by-wire” cars on the market – where the steering wheel is basically just a physical suggestion to the algorithm that actually directs the wheels.

The second phase is when all these automated features combine into a system where there is enough feedback and enough assurance against failure that the driver can temporarily cede control to the machine. This is what Google is currently driving around the streets of Mountain View, California: drivers are operating the cars manually and then “letting go” in certain circumstances. The fact that this experiment is taking place in, effectively, a grid-pattern campus town and not, say, Lewisham, tells you all you need to know about the progress of the technology.

It would not cope, yet, with London’s finest minicab behaviour, nor with the kebab-eating pedestrians, outraged cyclists and incessant changing between nonexistent lanes that characterises road use in a busy city. But it could. In theory you could program a car for all such eventualities and worse. And that would lead us to the third phase: totally autonomous vehicles, following GPS routes carefully to their destinations, responding to all surprises with a gentle deceleration.

This seems to me a total underestimation of the potential for automating road transport. Done properly, it would be achieved socially, not through the competitive design of moving metal boxes. The most advanced technology being applied to cars right now is arguably not in-car robotics but the intelligent transport systems (ITS) being developed in cities. These, at a basic level, begin by analysing real-time traffic flows, adjusting signals and junction priorities, and communicating with drivers through programmable signage. But once you add in sensors and interactivity, it becomes a different ball game.

If you could automate traffic flows – that is, mandate certain cars to go in certain directions and at certain speeds – you would have the makings of an automotive social network. This is the question all the auto-industry futurology avoids: the question of cooperation and control. If 50 drivers are individually plotting a route via GPS from Leicester to Liverpool, and we are at the stage of automated cars, there is nothing to stop an intelligent system pooling that information, and mandating the car space to be shared, in order to reduce energy consumption; to simplify the journey; to allow a national traffic manager to prioritise or deprioritise what, effectively, would become a car-train.

We have already re-landscaped Britain’s roads to limit the autonomy of the private car. You can’t go in the bus lane, nor in the cycle lanes being concreted-off right now in London; increasingly, you cannot find “rat runs”. A virtual concomitant to this would mandate routes, speeds and lane use for fully automated cars – and, of course, integrate them with an intelligent public transport system, consisting of intelligently routed trains, underground systems, trams and cycle paths.

Our imaginations are stuck in the age of Fred Flintstone: the man, confidently driving his nuclear family around in a square box, enjoying the “freedom” symbolised by the private car. Maybe there was a time when the automobile brought freedom: the ability to get away from the stultifying smalltown world, and as a movable trysting place for couples in the age of strict morality.

Personally, I would quite happily leave the world of the car behind, as with the cassette tape and the landline. I only use my car to drive to three places: Tesco, Pembrokeshire and a park five miles away where my dog likes to roll in fox poop. I don’t think that would challenge the algorithmic skills of the transport programmer – and I would rather see Google and its ilk put their brainpower into producing a social solution than one based on the illusory autonomy of the robotic car.


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