Friday, 21 August 2009

An autopian future?

I don’t feel right snaffling someone else’s blog posts, but I just had to pick up on this gem from Tom Vanderbilt, as it’s so close to my own research interests. (Tom’s is an excellent blog for driving buffs, too, and he’s always got something interesting.)

The ‘Autonomobile’ from Mike and Maaike is a design exercise to come up with a driverless car. This kind of thing comes around from time to time, and the Autonomobile is reminiscent of Concept 2096 (not a great link, but the only one I could find with an image) – another one developed to mark 100 years of the automobile, and an early inspiration in my PhD work. Interestingly, as I remarked on Tom’s blog, these are very similar but the anticipated timeframe is coming down – by 50 years, as the Autonomobile is apparently set for 2040.

I’m less convinced. Yes, these guys are right that technically speaking, we’re not far off. In controlled, closed-loop systems it is possible – see the Heathrow Personal Rapid Transit on their website, which we’ve been looking at lately. But there’s a bunch more human factors which mean that last 20 per cent (or 10, or 5) will be the real struggle. Mainly it’s the reliability issue – until the systems become so good that we can literally sit back and read the paper, there’ll always be the expectation of a human being there to supervise and save the day. And if there’s one fundamental which has come out of all the research on automation – vehicle or otherwise – it’s that humans don’t make good supervisors. We’re meant to do, not watch.

Besides, as others have pointed out, such ‘fully automated’ cars already exist to let us work, socialise etc. during the drive – they’re called taxis. And that’s the other side of the human factors equation – the social acceptability of automated cars. For one, a lot of people drive because they enjoy it. But the harder one to crack will be trust in these systems – will people ever really let go and switch off? And what happens if(when) there’s an accident – who’s to blame?


  1. Driving and taxi-riding in Sydney has convinced me that fully automated highways, perhaps a conveyor belt road system with cars that move slowly and only enough to get on the conveyor, is the future of choice.

  2. You should try taking a taxi in Beijing mate...

  3. Technically and operationally there are ever fewer problems with automating road traffic. To me, the big issues is organisational / legal: Who will provide insurance cover for guidance system failures and speed control failures at merging junctions on motorways, for example. Currently, we have this fiction that road incidents happen accidentally and are not really anybody's fault, really...