Could one accident kill the robot car?
Like most tech it must overcome the first inevitable failure
A Ford Transit van, driven by a robotic autonomous device at the automaker’s proving grounds in Michigan.
Picturing the scene is almost disturbingly easy. It will be all over the rolling 24-hour news channels when the day, inevitably, comes. The scrolling news ticker at the bottom of the screen will carry the sensationalist words ‘robot car triggers fatal accident’ while a serious-faced correspondent gives us the upsetting details as emergency crews work and scurry in the background.
There is little or no doubt that this will eventually happen. Self-driving, robotically controlled cars are coming to our roads, and their arrival is inexorable. Everyone, from Audi to Ford, from Google to the US Army is working on them and the technology is marching ahead with all of the speed we have become used to in the digital age.
Self-driving cars have made the species leap from the wandering, bumbling robots that failed, almost comically, to complete the US Defence Advanced Research Programme Agency (DARPA) tests a decade ago to the point where a Google driverless Toyota Prius recently drove its occupant, a man suffering from total sight loss, to Taco Bell for a burrito.
The problem is that for all the whizz-bang impressiveness of the technology, technology is only as perfect and as flawed as the person who programmed it, the factory it was built in. Which means that inevitably, at some stage, a computer-controlled car will make a mistake or suffer a software glitch and have a crash. It has happened already, when a Google car ventured on to a road that wasn’t fully mapped on to its GPS system and got confused. The only damage was done to the car’s panels that day, but given the nature of car accidents, that cannot last once driverless cars become more widespread on our roads.
When the fatal day arrives, what will be our reaction? We live in an age where public opinion seems to act on a hair-trigger, especially when it comes to risk and safety. When a self-driving car gets tangled in a fatal collision, the headline will not read “Inevitable statistical likelihood occurs.” It will be “Killer robot car wipes out family.” And there is just the possibility that such an outcry could delay or even derail the self-driving car project, even though the benefits to safety and the environment from turning over control to the computers are almost incalculable. Indeed Google’s Sebastian Thrun said in 2010 that “more than 1.2-million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half.”