You may have heard the news over the Easter weekend that Apple is the latest big Tech company that has been granted permission to start testing Autonomous Vehicles in California. Already out on the road doing test work are Alphabet (Google), VW, Daimler, Tesla, General Motors & Uber.
As an Apple fan I am pleased to hear that the Cupertino Campus is joining the R&D of what will surely be one of the most significant changes in transport since the motorcar took to the roads over a century ago.
I have my reservations however... this morning my Nest self learning thermostat was offline. After a little investigating I found that my router was also offline. No signs of a powercut so I set about doing the usual "switch it all off, switch it back on again" fix for all IT issues. No joy. No internet connection on the router. With no time to sort it out before I left for work I know that this will be top priority when I get home. Twelve year olds and sixteen year olds cannot exist without their online life . So - computers do go offline at the weirdest of times for the oddest reasons. We've all experienced that. Could you trust a car doing 70mph not to do the same?
When I go out on my motorbike I enjoy going for a ride purely because riding a motorbike demands 100% of your attention. It clears my head of anything else thats whirring around because not only am I focussed on what I am doing I have to be aware of all the other road users too. Accidents happen, its a fact of life. I am only too aware of this. A momentary lapse of judgement last summer saw me collide with an on coming car. It was my fault and I accept that. Luckily the only injuries sustained were mine and very minor thanks to wearing all the right gear. The motorbike was written off. An unfortunate victim of human error.
Now lets skip forwards to 2020 - say for instance I have just been knocked off my motorbike (or bicycle) by an autonomous car and the accident clearly wasn't my error. Who is to blame? The owner/driver of the autonomous vehicle? The car manufacturer? Or is it the software developer? If it ends up in court who will take to the stand to defend the other party? What chance will the injured driver/rider using a non-autonomous mode of transport have against a big corporation and their well paid lawyers?
To give another example - I've been out horseriding for the benefit of my daugther when we've been on holiday. Truthfully I have never felt comfortable on a saddle strapped to something that also has a mind of its own. I know that it takes time to build a relationship of trust with a horse and taking a 2 hour ride out with a riding stable isn't going to even start to build any relationship. I feel uneasy in the saddle because its not all down to me. Sure I have reigns to tell the horse which way to go but at the same time the horse can make decisions for itself too. Being a driver in an autonomous vehicle would leave me feeling the same way. Slightly uncomfortable. I'd become a terrible 'back-seat' driver.
I'm not saying lets not do it. Just lets be careful. Very careful. The road will end up becoming a shared network of human intelligence and computer intelligence. It's clear that is a direction we are going in. However there needs to be clear and transparent accountability - we cannot lose lives simply because of 'bugs' and apply patches and updates to fix things when lives are lost. People matter. Its as simple as that.
At the end of the day the intelligence is only as smart as the people writing the code - they are human, they will make mistakes. To quote something I read once " to err is human.... to really mess up you need a computer."
What's your view on the future of autonomous vehicles?