THE CONCEPT OF “driverless cars” has already gone from science fiction to fact. Now it is going from prototype to production model.
The latest news is that these robots will be driving passengers around on public roads long before the Gregorian calendar’s odometer clicks up another decade; quite large-scale trials will begin even before a person who was conceived last night gets his/her bottom smacked and goes “waah”.
On every level, that is interesting... even quite exciting. Questions galore: will the system work, will it be safe, will it be successful, how will it be most useful, what will be the most profound change to the way we live and move? Does the driverless car portend a social upheaval as great as the one caused by the horseless carriage?
What will be the biggest problem? Will traffic start to look like line-dancing, or like one of those discos where every gyrator is fitted with personal headphones and dances to a different tune.
One especially interesting aspect will be whether pre-programming of a car’s conduct and reactions to others will require a “cultural” chip. Will an identical set of algorithms for robotic responses to human (driver!) behaviour really work the same in London, Geneva and New York as in Mumbai, Bangkok and (God help us) Nairobi?
The technology that will enable driverless cars will no doubt be very clever, but on at least one level it begs the question: “what for?” Isn’t a driverless car, in at least some sense, a bit like decaffeinated coffee (what for?), or non-alcoholic beer (what for?), or nicotine-free cigarettes (what for?)
If you don’t want to drive, call a taxi or get a bus. Or ride a bicycle. Or walk. And if you are going to redesign every car and embed telemetry on every road, might it not be better — and in the long-run cheaper — to motorise the road itself, or just fit the pavements with mobile seats?
Or just stay at home, and talk to other folk on touchy-feely Skype and have things delivered by drones. Is the world getting smarter, or is the world getting weirder?
What are we looking for on Mars when we can’t even find a jetliner at the bottom of one of our oceans? Compared with that, even Donald Trump looks more than half-witted.
Perhaps the whole subject isn’t really about the practical impact of driverless cars at all, but about the as-yet unknown spin-offs of the technical innovations the process will spawn.
Of course, research of any kind should have some sort of practical application, but our modern lives are already bursting with abstracted inventions for which purposes have only later been found, and many of our strictly purposeful inventions have been put to entirely unforeseen uses.
So let’s just wonder while we wait and see. Something interesting and exciting and wonderful is going to happen. We just don’t know what it is yet.
And if you struggle to cope with how weird the interim process looks, remember the question posed by that great philosopher, Billy Connolly: “Who discovered that we could get milk from cows and, while he was finding out, what did people think he was doing?”