Self-driving cars

I’ve scanned through a lot of 2013 prediction articles in the past few days, and it seems that the idea of self-driving cars is something that is capturing the imagination of many futurologists.

To a great extent, cars are already capable of being fairly self-driving; technologies like adaptive cruise control (braking and accelerating), lane assist (steering) and automatic parallel parking are available as options on production cars today. Add in a bit of jiggery-pokery, and the device becomes self-driving.

But there is an interesting dilemma. Although cars have got an awful lot safer since the heyday of suicide driving in the 1950s with the introduction of seat belts, airbags, crumple zones and countless other innovations, they are still fairly unsafe things to be in and around in the great scheme of things and will be often ranked highly as likely cause of death for the younger populations of developed-world economies. But, as economist Steve Levitt noted in the recent Freakonomics podcast, the fatality rate for autonomous autos will need to be of a magnitude smaller than human-driven cars to gain public acceptance (Levitt estimated between 1/5 and 1/10 of the accident rate). Humans don’t like giving up control.

Which makes me wonder – will self-driving cars ever become popular until they actually stop looking like cars and start getting designed to be fit for purpose? If there is a steering wheel, we’ll always be feeling nervous about the invisible hand doing the steering…

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