The government has announced it wants driverless cars on the road soon – and they could reach 70mph.
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Are driverless cars coming to British roads? The news that motorists might be allowed to take their hands off the steering wheel for the first time was portrayed as a “big step” in that direction.
The truth, as ever, is more nuanced.
The Department for Transport has announced a consultation into the possibility that some automated driving technologies might be allowed in certain particular circumstances.
It has published plans to legalise the use of “lane keeping” systems that lets the car take control of itself in slow traffic.
This kind of technology is already widely available in modern cars, but the Highway Code insists that motorists remain in control at all times.
This change would allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel. Only briefly.
You could not watch a film or even send anything more than the briefest text until, for the first time outside trials, the car would be in charge.
To some, that makes it an important step.
“It’s still a vehicle taking decisions on its steering and its speed without you steering or controlling the speed,” said Oxford professor Paul Newman, who founded self-driving technology company Oxbotica.
“[The car] has to perceive its environment, it’s got to know where it is, it’s got to know where other vehicles are. These are the building blocks of autonomy.”
Professor Newman cites an old adage known as Amara’s Law – that we tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run.
We see small steps without realising what large forces they will grow into. For yesterday’s brick mobile phones, read today’s barely-autonomous vehicles.
“There is no way we will be stuck behind a steering wheel forever,” the professor added.
There is a counter-argument.
Some of the world’s foremost artificial intelligence practitioners suggest that full automation is not going to arrive slowly, bit by bit.
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It will take a step-change in the technology to achieve it – and, at present, we are a long way from that.
But, even if the technology is not developing, the conditions of its use are.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Department for Transport’s call for evidence are the conditions it places on motorists who want to use automated systems.
In order to deploy one, drivers will be checked every 30 seconds for signs including blinking and “conscious head or body movements”. If they do not pass the tests, the system will shut down.
If you cannot change the car as much as you would like, change the driver instead. So often, that is the way technological revolution really works.