Autonomous cars: will we let them be autonomous?

Blog post posted on 29/03/17 |

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee has been considering the implications of self driving cars.  One part of their conclusion was this: “…autonomous cars could have negative implications for drivers' competence, making drivers complacent and overly reliant on technology. This is of particular concern in emergency situations, where a driver may react slowly to taking back control of a vehicle.”

I’m not sure this will be the greatest concern.  As head of technical policy, I do love a gadget and my latest car (three years old, but new to me) has them in spades.  I simply tell it what maximum speed I want stick to and it does the rest; it keeps a safe distance behind the car in front, slows down with the traffic, brakes on hills to control speed, stops if the car in front does, starts again when it moves off, follows the white lines above 30mph, or follows the car in front below 30mph.  It makes traffic queues quite entertaining, and that's apart from the self-parking magic and some very clever headlights.  It uses radar, cameras and ultrasound sensors to explore its surroundings and “sees” easily through fog, rain and darkness.

As I said, I’m a sucker for gadgets; I once bought a Mark IV Ford Zodiac because it had an electric aerial. I couldn’t wait to get my first car with electric windows, but most of these hi-tech goodies have real safety benefits; the car doesn’t get distracted, the radar measures distances with pinpoint accuracy and it reacts far faster than I can. 

However, when it came to ploughing through the vast array of settings, it became clear that the previous owner hadn't really used any of this functionality.  The settings for the stereo, sat-nav and so on had been altered, but all the driving assistance systems were still at the factory defaults. 

It seems likely the first owner drove it as a standard car and did it all himself.  It gets me wondering how many drivers actually use the functionality to the full - and how many will as they become more standard. 

Anecdotes from IAM RoadSmart colleagues bear this out; tales of people who never use cruise control because it feels out of control; an interview where the presenter confessed to not using the self-park function on her car “because she didn’t trust it,” examples of huge manuals with several hundred pages to wade through to figure out what the car will do, and how you make it do it. 

The technology is becoming more and more widespread and the potential safety benefits are great - but the problem may not be slow reactions from drivers used to letting the car do it all, as their Lordships suggest.  It might be educating people about how the car is designed to be driven in order to get the safety benefits in the first place, at least until the steering wheel goes altogether. 

IAM RoadSmart are organising a conference later this year to bring a wide range of expertise to the issues raised by the transition to driverless cars; if we want to reap the safety benefits, this issue may be one to consider.

Tim Shallcross, IAM RoadSmart’s, head of technical policy and advice