Man at His Best

Opinion: Drive

Columnist Matt Armitage is all for self-driving, autonomous, robotic cars.

BY Matt Armitage | Sep 10, 2016 | Technology

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That’s right. It’s a link at the top. This time around I want you to fully immerse yourself. Listen to the playlist, check your chat groups, have a drink, eat a snack. Take a sneaky selfie. Go on, indulge yourself while you read.

If you did all of the above while you were driving, you’d probably be dead. Thing is, you do, so it’s a miracle that you’re alive to read this. That’s why I want to take your driving license away. I’m not being selfish. In this month of Malaysian unity, it’s tantamount to national service. You’re not a good driver. Oddly, you’re convinced that you’re the only competent driver on the road; maybe in the world. In fact, if you’d had the money and privilege, you’d have made it as an F1 driver, easy. It’s this delusion that makes the problem worse. Shifting you into the passenger seat quickly reduces the more than 1.25 million folks who end up as global roadkill each year.

In case this is sounding like snooty neo-colonialism, I’ll be giving up my license, too. The world’s roads are a mess of people who change lane without signalling. Cut in front of other drivers without warning. Overtake on the inside. Reverse down highways to reach a missed exit. Take shortcuts against the traffic on one way streets. Double park. Jump red lights or hold up traffic because they’re staring at their phone while shouting and screaming at drivers who do the same.

In an ideal world, anyone found guilty of committing any one of these tarmacadam damnations should have their licence surgically removed. Without us, roads would be free-flowing, smooth and uncluttered. “That’s because you’re banning all the cars, you ass,” the polite end of Reddit points out. I’m not. Cars aren’t the problem. Their drivers are.

Self-driving, autonomous, robotic cars are long overdue. You might not trust a machine to drive you but artificial intelligence would trust you far less, and summon the statistics to prove it. Admittedly, there are very few fully autonomous cars on the road, today. If there were, there’s little reason to think they would kill 1.25 million people in their first few months. Not without committing electronic suicide en masse. It’s about reduction rather than eradication: people will continue to die in autonomous cars until Google finds a way to stop landslides, tsunamis, heart attacks and elephants on highways. Certainly, a robot car won’t rear-end you because the sun came out and it sneezed.

Machines are better drivers than we are if only because they lack the self-awareness to be selfish. They know that they are a single point in a network and understand that moving from one physical space to another requires constant cooperation and consistent communal understanding. They are both part of the system and what allows it to operate.

Maybe this smacks of communism, utopianism or even dystopianism. I see it as freedom. If the car is taking care of itself, you can selfie yourself into fame and obscurity without endangering the rest of us. More importantly, it radically transforms the control mechanisms that governments and urban planners have had to invent to offset our urge to gridlock our environments. Networked robot charabancs don’t need traffic lights, roundabouts or designated U-turns. Fed with a constant stream of data about the roads, traffic, weather and other conditions around them, our cars will operate like neurons speeding through the brain.

And just like our brains, it will operate at such an incredibly complicated level of organisation that it resembles nothing more than chaos. Robot cars will be able to crisscross and cut through junctions, minimizing stopping time by adopting exactly the right speed to take to glide through the space between two oncoming cars that have already been informed about and consented to the manoeuvre. Linked in a hive mind, our cars will cooperate in this insect-like fashion. It won’t look pretty but it should be effectively efficient.

Like any good real-time data-connected chauffeur, your car to tell you the best time to go for a ride. Keep it on standby and it will message your smartphone when it’s time to go, removing itself from the dark, dank, fetid car park and picking you up outside the building. You can even lease it out to Uber and pick up some carless wayfarers en route, without ever once looking up from Snapchat.

Of course, a transport system that is linked, networked and interdependent is perfect fodder for hackers. Imagine the movie The Italian Job where the bank robbers can control vehicles as well as traffic lights. That same command and control structure leaves you and your car susceptible to the whim of governments that might have a reason to lock down traffic as well as roads, or to monitor where its citizens are or might have been at any time. But then, they can already do that with your current GPS-enabled car, smartphone and banks of CCTV cameras. So, what the hey? Climb in-back and get on-board the driverless revolution.