I’m a great supporter of driverless cars. I think they have the potential to dramatically change the world, making much better use of resources, revolutionising mobility for all and radically improving our towns and cities.
Paradoxically, however, I am not so keen on Phillip Hammond’s announcement that the UK aims to be the first country in the world to permit them on public roads without any “safety attendant” on board.
I’m just not convinced that the Government has developed a solid appreciation for the benefits of technology. After all, this is the country where more than half of schools don’t even offer a computer science GCSE, according to a report from the Royal Society.
In fact, I think this has, like it seems everything these days, more to do with Brexit than anything else.
Having alienated the conventional motor industry who are warning of the dire consequences of leaving the customs union, it probably seems like a really smart move to become the go-to place for manufacturers to be testing and developing self-driving cars, which the smart money says are the future. This way we can secure our place in world when conventional car manufacturing relocates to the Continent.
But recklessly throwing off safeguards simply in order to pursue narrow short-term economic objectives could set the development of self-driving cars back decades. The implementation of self-driving cars is multi-facetted and complex, as much from a societal as a technical perspective. It will require careful collaboration across countries and disciplines, as well as exceptionally well calibrated communication with the populations they are supposed to be benefiting. None of these things seem to particularly in the UK’s skillset at the moment.
We’ve already witnessed the outcry over a fatal accident where a Tesla which was driving failed to see a lorry crossing in front. This is in sharp contrast to the coverage given to the 1.25 million people estimated to be killed by human-driven cars each year around the world. And this was in a case where there was a clear responsibility on the driver to keep alert and supervise if necessary.
The first (pretty-well inevitable) fatality by a self-driving car could quite easily set off a backlash which sets the development of this transformational technology back decades. And that would be a tragedy, not least for the millions whose lives would have been saved by the technology in the interim.