The topic that’s got me - and it seems a great deal of others - hot under the collar lately is that of the ‘self driving’ car. As Google and others further the technology necessary for a world free from steering wheels, one can’t help but wonder just what that world will be like. Many have dabbled in this topic but I hope to raise some points here I’ve not myself heard.


While we’ve come along way since the Y2K world, a time when people had a natural distrust for machines (seriously, it seems so ridiculous now, but I’m sure you can recall just as I do a time when adults held a genuine distrust for a computer). Now, finally, people have started having reasonable faith in glorified logic machines and are instead recognizing the people operating them are the ones increasingly often not to be trusted. As of late, the people most often in the spotlight of course are not drivers but rather the NSA. Still, the point stands; to quote a wonderful acronym coined in tech support circles, P.L.B.K.A.C: Problem Lies Between Keyboard And Chair. So surely if we take away the keyboard steering wheel, no one could take objection?

Fortunately, even if for whatever reason there is resistance to the concept, its not a topic we have to convince the world of all at once. As much as I wish I could say in a years time the roads will be filled (or indeed empty) with fully autonomous vehicles, the reality of this situation is we’re much more likely to get there via a few intermediary steps.

We’ll start, or rather we have started with computer assisted driving. Already cars are on the roads that can park themselves, emergency stop, warn you of a vehicle in your blind spot, and more features are added constantly. The next step of course is to switch roles; human assisted driving, systems akin to what Google is already testing on the streets. We’ll likely stay at this stage until the vast majority of things on the road are autonomous.

Eventually though, we’ll get to that wonderful point, where we can eliminate even the occasional need for a human at the helm. And thats the time I’d like to focus on, when things get really interesting.

Starting from scratch

Once you’ve taken the driver out of the equation, the distinction between public and private transportation is bound to change. When a vehicle can drive itself, does it make sense for one individual or even household to own one? I certainly don’t think it does. It makes much more sense for the bare minimum number of vehicles needed to serve a populace to be in constant circulation than it does for your car to be parked outside your house waiting for you. This change will be much akin to how Toyota turned car manufacturing on its head with its Kanban process, moving an entire industry from stockpiling resources to instead maintaining the bare minimum of inventory needed for peak production, a system which they showed vastly improves efficiency.

Such a system brings several benefits. Firstly, fewer parked vehicles, one I have already touched on. In addition, we can expect more vehicle diversity; no longer is it necessary to take a stab at guessing what single vehicle will best suit your needs for the next 5+ years, and in doing so compromise on suiting any of them. Long gone will be the age of the 5 seater hatchback! Say hello instead to the all electric BatchelorPod, a single seater with an even smaller footprint than a Smart car. Once you tailor the vehicles on the road to accommodate precisely the number of people and baggage that want to be on the road, you reduce the total footprint hugely! This was recently and excellently demonstrated in a gif doing the rounds on tumblr:

Car drivers fitting in a single tram car

And once that hurdle is cleared, once we relinquish ownership of an individual vehicle for the betterment of everyone in the system, we eliminate the car as a status symbol, gleefully crushing in my mind at least a ridiculous industry built around designing an object - who’s purpose is primarily functional - to instead best represent its owner.

That isn’t to say the automotive design industry is over. Far from it. Rather, their industry just received a tremendous breath of fresh air. Much of the design of a car once restricted by safety regulation is now gone! Windows? Seats that face forward? A dashboard? All these things are entirely irrelevant in this bold future. It seems to me car designers jobs are going to get a lot closer to Tony Stark’s; purpose building “suits” to transport or even entertain their precious cargo.

The Three Laws of Robotics

Isaac Asimov’s coined the three laws of robotics in his I, Robot series. While I’m sure he never intended for them to be taken as gospel outside of the world of science fiction, they are sensible and perhaps obvious laws that are bound to find there way into cars. Of particular interest in the context of autonomous vehicles is the first law:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Substitute “robot” for “human” and I think you and I could both agree that the law should still stand, and by that logic one couldn’t have much issue with it. But I foresee an interesting predicament that given enough time is bound to present itself, that is, a situation in which an autonomous vehicle does not make the same decision that its driver would have, in order to harm fewer lives than a self preserving human would. It is in our nature to be self preserving, and it is entirely plausible that a situation could arise on the road where in order to prevent a larger fatal accident from occurring, a driver would need to sacrifice themself. An obvious example would be two children running into the road, or catastrophic failure in a nearby much larger vehicle.

And this raises an interesting issue: If I am the passenger in that autonomous car, sealed in, blissfully unaware of my surroundings and the situation about to arise ahead… Is it acceptable for my life to be ended to save others? Are there certain circumstances when it is and isn’t? These are questions that as a society, we will have no choice but to come to a preemptive conclusion on, lest we leave it too late.

Onwards and upwards

That concludes my thoughts worth mentioning on the brave new world we are entering. I hope that, having finished somewhat ominously on the ethics of robotics, you don’t think I fear this future. Au contraire! I for one welcome our new steering wheel free overlords. I cannot wait to live in this mad and exciting future that will undoubtedly soon be reality.