Why driverless cars don't belong on public roads (yet)

Since driverless cars first started appearing in physical form, rather than as an abstract concept and longtime sci-fi staple, there have been concerns over their safety. Would they go out of control? Could they be hacked, and what would happen if they were? Are they better than a human driver?

In the end, all the incidents so far have (largely) been fender benders low speed crashes in which there were no injuries or fairly minor ones. What's intriguing, though, is that in virtually all cases, the tech companies that own and operate the self-driving car have blamed human error.

To quote Mandy Rice-Davies: "Well they would say that, wouldn't they?" But that doesn't mean it's not true. The most recent case, where a driverless shuttle in Las Vegas collided with a reversing truck, is still under investigation, but apparently the autonomous vehicle performed as it was programmed to it saw the approaching lorry and stopped. The human-operated vehicle, on the other hand, didn't, and continued to reverse until it crashed.

It's hard to say what a human driver would have done in the situation, although I suspect some creative thinking like beeping their horn or reversing themselves in order to actively avoid the collision would have been likely. The shuttle, however, wasn't programmed to do that so despite obeying its programming, the collision still happened.

And this is part of the problem with driverless cars when they share the road with human drivers; they don't have the ability to think in the abstract ways that humans do. While their reaction times may be faster, they can't problem solve in the way a person can when an unexpected situation occurs.

Does this mean we should abandon autonomous vehicles completely? Not at all. Even I, an arch sceptic on a lot of things, have come round to the idea of self-driving cars and trucks. For one, it could help counter the kinds of terrorist attacks that we've seen in London, Barcelona, Berlin, Nice and Charlottesville, where vehicles have been deliberately driven into crowds.

But while we still have human-operated vehicles, I don't think there's any way for these two vastly different driving styles to safely share the same roads at the same time. Humans are too unpredictable, they don't always obey the rules. They're not robots.

While human-driven cars still comprise the vast majority of traffic, and perhaps even when they don't, we need to determine a safe way for driverless vehicles to use the road. Though this is really a question for urban planners, separate lanes that are physically divided from the mainstream traffic (so that those unpredictable humans don't decide to just break the rules and use it), seems like an obvious solution - although standardisation is also needed.

Will that require us to rethink how our cities are laid out? Yes, but with the push for smart cities, we're going to have to do that anyway.

Driverless cars are the (eventual) future, but if we want to get there anytime soon, we need to make sure it's done smoothly and safely.

Jane McCallion
Managing Editor

Jane McCallion is ITPro's Managing Editor, specializing in data centers and enterprise IT infrastructure. Before becoming Managing Editor, she held the role of Deputy Editor and, prior to that, Features Editor, managing a pool of freelance and internal writers, while continuing to specialize in enterprise IT infrastructure, and business strategy.

Prior to joining ITPro, Jane was a freelance business journalist writing as both Jane McCallion and Jane Bordenave for titles such as European CEO, World Finance, and Business Excellence Magazine.