At the end of my street is the reasonably busy road that links the suburbs of Teddington and Kingston. At peak times the traffic can pass slowly, sometimes queuing in one or both directions. Even at non-peak times there is a constant flow of cars in both directions.
Taking a right turn North out of the top of the street at most times is a complex process, involving a number of tacit rules. There is a set of pedestrian lights a little further North that can assist. If someone is walking across the road triggers the lights to red for cars, there is a moment of opportunity to pull out into the southbound lane. There is then a matter of subtle negotiation with cars coming from the left – a catching of the eye, a slight nod, a flash of the headlights, a wave of thanks.Pulling out into the northbound lane one then needs to wait for the lights to change to green, and you are away.
There are hundreds of ways in which that manoeuvre at that junction can pan out, and most of them don’t strictly follow to the letter of the Highway Code. If one were to wait for both lanes to be clear to be able to turn right, you could be there for hours.
In urban and suburban areas, there are thousands of spots that have similar tacit rules and constant negotiation between road users for them to work effectively.
I have before voiced my scepticism about the impending rise of autonomous vehicles. The more that I think about it, the more it seems to me that whilst centaur-type vehicles (a combination of people and machines) are already with us and get smarter and smarter, and that certain road conditions (free-flowing motorways, for example) might be able to be hands-free environments, the amount of subtle interaction between people who make up the users of the road means that we are a very, very long way from the steering wheel-less motorcars of “the future”. Without being able to switch everyone over to driver-free cars at the same instant and removing all non-autonomous road users at the same time the extent to which road use is a constant form of human interaction is, it seems, lost on the robot car evangelists.
It comes again back to the idea that machines follow rules but things work for us because humans can constantly, subtly and beneficially break those rules. Road use isn’t as simple as following the signs, the markings and the Highway Code. It might be in the limited circumstances when everything is going to plan. But in any case when something untoward happens the ingenuity and collaborative capabilities of the human take over and we’re pretty damn good at muddling through in those circumstances. Just try having subtle communication through nothing more than a glance and a raised eyebrow with your smartphone to understand what I mean.