Thinking allowed — 17 April 2018

Bridget Driscoll isn’t a name on everyone lips these days, her death at Crystal Palace in 1896, she would achieve pre-eminence as the first pedestrian in England to be killed by a motor car, a taxi-cab driver at the inquest claimed that the vehicle was incapable of travelling in excess of 4½ miles-an-hour and the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. The coroner optimistically opining that he hoped “such a thing would never happen again”.

ELAINE HERZBERG has joined the pantheon of pedestrian fatalities, this time as the first in the world to be killed by a ‘driverless car’.

Anyone who has driven n London will have been confronted by a confused Uber driver travelling against the traffic flow or just veering whilst trying to establish the correct direction their journey should take.

The Holy Grail of the transport ‘digital disruptors’ is to remove the human from the equation when providing private hire vehicles, hardly surprising then that billions are being spent on ‘driverless’ cars. We are being promised that within twelve years 95 percent of city car journeys will be made in self-driving vehicles.

This utopian world would have us believe that private hire vehicles could effortlessly whisk us to our destination, without the inconvenience of having to converse with the cabbie. The problem is that driving around London is unpredictable, even the most inept Uber driver can avoid potholes, detritus in the road and identify the odd drunk about to fall off the edge of the pavement.

Not so for automation. Take, for example, two driverless private hire vehicles meeting down a road with cars parked on both sides with no gaps, which one will give way first and reverse? Could your robot cabbie distinguish between a large puddle and an unnavigable ford after heavy rain?

Would passengers be vulnerable should a gang member stand in the road, stopping the vehicle allowing his accomplices to force open the doors and rob the passengers, a modern-day highwayman if you like? And, if two driverless private hire vehicles collide, where do you lay the blame, and who would pay the compensation – Uber? They claim to provide the technology, not the vehicles or the quasi-drivers.

Humans are injudicious creatures when it comes to their choice of transport. Many will get into a vehicle late on a Friday night, without the certain knowledge that the driver is bona fide. They ignore the obvious dangers of choosing a driver who knows where he is going, has insurance, is driving a road-worthy vehicle and doesn’t have a criminal record as long as your arm.

Having said that a robot trying to cope with: snow; icy roads; heavy rain; road works; potholes; malfunctioning traffic lights; cyclists refusing to use cycle lanes; pedestrians walking out expecting the vehicles to stop on a sixpence (a common problem for London’s cabbies); or a policeman standing in the road indicating to proceed; might be preferable then some vehicles and drivers trying to ply for hire on London’s streets at night.

Featured image: Nerdwallet has conducted a survey on driverless cars which concluded that Women Say No Thanks to Driverless Cars, but Men Say Tell Me More.

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