Volvo’s test of self-driving cars seems to be progressing significantly ahead of schedule. In a press release last December, the company said that “the project would commence in 2014 with customer research and technology development, [with the first cars] expected to be on the roads in Gothenburg by 2017.” An update just released says that “the first test cars are already rolling around the Swedish city of Gothenburg and the sophisticated Autopilot technology is performing well.”
Why the rush into self-driving cars, and what will be the consequences – intended and otherwise?
One big reason for introducing self-driving cars is safety. Human beings cause a million road deaths every year, and computers are less prone to error – partly because they don’t get drunk, tired or angry. Driverless cars can also move together in synchronised “herds”, which dramatically speeds up journey times.
Some observers expect that commuting distances may increase, and commuting may become much less of a bore, as drivers read, watch movies, and catch up with emails (and blog posts) while their automatic pilots take care of the driving duties.
A lot has been made of the potential for job losses as driving jobs are automated, but most of this is overdone. Until and unless computers become conscious and pass the Turing Test, humans will be needed on board taxis, vans and trucks – partly to load and unload their cargoes, and partly to deal with the unexpected developments that the real world throws up on many journeys. Evidence for this is provided by the aviation industry. Planes have been flown “by wire” for decades, but we still don’t have pilot-less passenger or cargo planes.