The road test can be a challenge for many people, so the thought that one day cars will drive themselves is a welcome one.
If you’re in your 40s or 50s, then you would have grown up being fed the idea that driving a car would be radically different to when your parents used to take you to the beach.
For a start, cars would be electric instead of the gas-guzzling behemoths everyone was driving at the time.
Electric cars would revolutionise travel. They would be clean, fast and efficient. Importantly, they would be cheap.
This was the vision many books gave us during the 70s, but as time moved on, we realised that pure electric cars are still a way off yet.
Sure, Tesla and others are setting the standards, but they’re a long way off from being the ubiquitous mode of transport we once thought they would be.
Nope, we’re stuck with fossil fuels for now.
But what about the other great hope? One day, we were told, cars would drive themselves.
Now, again, this has some merit in today’s vehicles.
Tesla is once again ahead of the curve with cars that can, to some degree, drive themselves, but we’re a long way off from being able to tell them to take us to the local mall while we sit back and relax.
Of course, even though cars are not fully autonomous, the technology that is being developed to get there is making its way into today’s vehicles and making life much easier.
For example, the road test includes tests of your ability to parallel park. However, if you drive a new Ford with “Active Park Assist”, there’s no need to do it yourself.
This has to be put into perspective, but there are a number of really big obstacles to overcome before we can give up on the road test.
Here are just a few:
To listen to some manufacturers, driverless cars are about a year away. They say this every year, but they say it in a confident manner that would give you the impression that very soon we’ll be totally hands-off when it comes to doing the school run.
This is, of course, nonsense.
The technology is still being tested, and it’s not advancing as quickly as many people would hope.
Yes, it can avoid accidents, but when they’re totally driverless, can they be trusted to make the right decision and avoid injuring or killing others? Some say not, and earlier this year, an Uber car caused a fatality:
Now, the trouble with this is that due to the nature of the technology, the first few accidents are going to be big news. There are accidents and fatalities every day in ‘normal’ cars, but they don’t make the front pages.
However, it leads to the second point…
We’re just not ready
Our roads were not made for driverless cars.
The current road test goes into a lot of detail about the finer aspects of driving a car, not just on a wide freeway, but on minor roads where the obstacles are wide and varied.
How can a machine handle that?
Yes, it can know that a small child has run out in front of it, but then, how does it decide whether to veer off and hit something else?
Also, how does it navigate stop-start traffic in a busy street with cars and other vehicles parked all over the place?
It would seem that not only are our cars going to have to adapt, but our roads are going to have to do that, too.
This takes long-term planning and investment, and we simply don’t have that at the moment.
There are legal implications
If you cause an accident, then there’s a chance you will be held accountable, and you could be charged with driving without due care and attention.
If a car causes an accident, how will that pan out?
Can a car be held responsible for deciding to cause damage to something rather than hit and potentially kill a dog?
As a driver, the buck stops with you, with an autonomous car, does it stop with the “brain” of the car? Or maybe the person in the driving seat? Or is it the company that manufactured the car?
Even so. Let’s imagine all of these problems are solved at some point soon.
There is already an industry that we can draw on that has been going through this process for years – the aviation industry.
Planes have had autopilot for decades, and some of the most sophisticated aircraft can take off, navigate and land with little input from pilots.
Does this mean pilots don’t need as much training?
In fact, pilots are still required to go through the same rigorous tests, because you never know when the technology might fail.
So our answer is clear, then.
For the foreseeable future, you’re going to have to continue to take your road test, and it might even get more difficult!