The Autonomous Vehicle Conundrum

Rob Bell

Issue 4, October 2017

Many of us have this unnerving idea that machines can't drive better than us. But are we soon to be proven wrong?

When I was younger, I watched Back To The Future; and it’s funny to think that back then we all believed it was somewhat realistic to have flying cars that were as stable and practical as the standard four-wheeled variety. Likewise, many of our favourite Sci-Fi movies featured spaceships that were held together with chewing gum and duct-tape as they hurtled through space. And they’d wrangle the steering of their million-tonne ship with the sweat and muscle of a World War fighter pilot, as if it makes a difference, providing sufficient distraction for us all to forget the obvious plot holes this represents! One thing is for sure though, while we’re still struggling to take to the skies in daily life, humans are unlikely to seriously pilot these things once they exist.

These days, the semi-successful footage that we see of car-sized drones taking to the skies, are far from uneventful. These test flights made by cutting-edge technologies, usually see a very prototype-style contraption, with a rather nervous looking pilot strapped to the top of the device. They’re making the smoothest adjustments they can to keep things under control, utilising 100% of their attention and focus, yet they still struggle to keep things from crashing to the ground.

Of course, it is fair to claim that this is a product of the technology being in its infancy, and it’s to be expected while they figure out the systems and processes that will drive these things into the future; until they can reliably make them as simple to drive as a car.

But wait... driving a car is simple? Then why do over a million people all over the world, die on our roads, each and every year?


It would be fairly safe to say that close to 100% of the fatalities due to vehicles worldwide were caused by humans. Perhaps the driver misread the road conditions, or the vehicle’s maintenance wasn’t kept up (such as bald tyres) causing increased stopping distance. Or perhaps the driver’s mobile phone rang. They know not to answer the phone, but it distracted them for long enough to take their eyes off the road. Or maybe they simply left the parking brake off and it rolled away on its own, taking out an unsuspecting pedestrian.

Every 25 seconds or so, somewhere in the world, someone dies in a motor vehicle accident.

It’s already said that the youngest generation will likely never learn to drive. As a parent myself, I take solace in the fact that this is likely very true. The autonomy, convenience, and safety offered by a fleet of autonomous self-driving cars you can hail with an app on your phone, really is one of the best advances we can make, to ensuring our roads are less congested and safer for everyone in the future. It’s entirely possible that in a few generations’ time, we’ll look back on this period of self-piloted vehicles on our roads, as one of the most wild and crazy times in transportation history.

Yet, as soon as a fatality happens involving a driverless car, the world goes into a tailspin slamming the technology as unreliable and unsafe. Of course, it makes for attention-grabbing headlines in the media, a chance for one company to advance ahead of another, but in reality it’s an almost insignificant blip in the statistics of human fatalities involving vehicles. It also plays to our thinking that perhaps, somehow, we’re not the bad driver that can cause these problems.

So why do many of us have a perception that a machine, specifically built, with world-class sensors and more driving experience programmed into it than a veteran taxi driver, is somehow less safe than a human driver? We can easily paint a picture of an 18-year-old, risk-taking, semi-distracted male driver, with a lead foot and an obsession with Facebook for comparison to see whether machine or human is more dangerous. But would that be fair? What about a 30-something mum taking her kids to school, obeying all the road rules and driving at five-below the speed limit? The reality is, regardless of our default personality and vigilance behind the wheel, we’re all easily distracted sometimes - be it by the news on the radio, the kids arguing in the back seat, or daydreaming about the weekend while sitting in traffic on a Friday afternoon. Humans aren’t designed to drive, we’re designed to walk. So why not leave it to the machines?


One aspect that challenges our thinking, is who’s making the decisions? As humans, we make all sorts of seemingly intelligent decisions, which stem from a mix of biology and education. Our education tells us to drive on the correct side of the road, while our biology would, if faced with the decision of hitting a person or a machine, create an almost involuntary and reactionary response, steering us away from the person and into a machine.

So could a programmer ultimately have a say in who lives and who dies? When the machine is left with no alternative but to crash into two people, how would it decide who lives and who dies? If it has to decide between crashing into a wall or crashing into another car, how does it decide? Could the car ultimately sacrifice you, the occupant, rather than crashing through a crowded pathway?

I think the reality here is that, forgoing some sort of conspiracy, it doesn’t matter. Consider that first and foremost, a self-driving car’s only task is to get you from A to B safely. Chances are it’s not speeding, it’s driving to the weather conditions, and it’s not distracted by constant phone alerts or the conversation inside the car. The reality is, when faced with a challenging decision, the outcome should yield the best result, but by design it should rarely be faced with such decisions anyway.


There are, of course, limitless scenarios we can conjure up regarding potential failure of the sensors: the computer could crash, or the system could somehow turn against us. It’s easy when we need to try and justify our superior driving skills, but the reality is that machines are learning each and every day. Indeed machines can learn from each other’s mistakes too, something humans are often reasonably poor at doing!

Personally, I can’t wait for machines to take over the driving. As much as I love to get behind the wheel, I’d much prefer to spend the time doing something more interesting. A family road trip could involve playing games with the kids in the backseat until we arrive at our destination; to me that sounds much more fun than trying to distribute snacks while keeping a steady eye on the road.

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, I believe the future is bright, and personally I’ll be there ready and waiting to sign up for the first autonomous option that will inevitably take to our roads soon. What about you?