Out of your hands

Published March 28, 2019

Lights of fast-moving traffic

It’s always been a surprise to people that, despite being someone who avidly followed Formula One for a good ten years, I really don’t care much for cars. Recently someone asked me what car I drive, the vehicle I have sat in pretty much every day for two years, and it took me about twenty minutes to remember. I’ve always loved the freedom and independence being a driver gives you, but in terms of the mechanics, I couldn’t be less interested.

However, with the growing momentum towards self-driving and autonomous vehicles, I am, at last starting to pay attention. This is a world that I can get on board with – one where you don’t have to worry about the mechanics, of driving even, but you still get to control your own destiny.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m keen for the self-driving revolution to get here and get here quickly, because the transitional period with semi-clever cars has made me a worse driver than before. But of course, it’s the transition that is holding everything up. There are cars out there doing their self-driving thing fine. And if we all had them and the infrastructure was there, it’d be easy. Getting to that point is the hard part: self-driving cars and regular human drivers mixing together is where the trouble starts.

But, we’re seeing progress. And this week there were two headlines on the topic that caught my eye.

Road safety: UK set to adopt vehicle speed limiters

Speed limiting technology looks set to become mandatory for all vehicles sold in Europe from 2022, after new rules were provisionally agreed by the EU… Safety measures approved by the European Commission included intelligent speed assistance (ISA), advanced emergency braking and lane-keeping technology.

These are all ways of reducing the reliance on human intervention, and getting the car to do more of the work, essentially encouraging self-driving cars along their way. There’s also talk of black boxes and data recorded, which makes people very nervous. But as Theo Leggett, business correspondent, says in the post: “You can force people to slow down, you can watch what they’re doing, you can help them with emergency braking – but you can’t get rid of basic bad driving. Unless, of course, you have self-driving cars.”

In 1959, Volvo gave us the seat belt—here’s what its safety team is building now

And in extreme situations, where the car detects a high risk of a collision or the loss of control, it will intervene. “The human driver is really very good, but we are still humans, so it varies over time,” explained Malin Ekholm, who runs Volvo’s Safety Center. “When you’re really at your best, I’m happy to let you drive. But when you’re not, I would like to support you to make you better than you are in that particular situation. And how we do that, that’s where we have to have this conversation.”

I like how Ekholm makes it sound like he’s doing us a favour, “I’m happy to let you drive.” But really, he knows that his machinery could do a far better job. It feels like we’re at a bit of a turning point now. Previously, it was all about whether the self-driving car was ever actually going to come to fruition. Then it was about the extent of their capabilities – the various stages of autonomy and whether it might be something limited to smaller geographic areas.

Now it very much feels like the conversation is about how to convince people that they will be better off handing responsibility over to their four-wheeled counterparts. And for those that are reluctant, showing them that the cars are going to be developed in that direction (the make-everyone-a-better-driver-and-the-roads-a-safer-place direction) and you’re just going to have to be on board. Now, it’s not about whether it’s going to happen but how best to get everyone to the same page as quickly and safely as possible.

I’m watching this space with eager fascination.

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