What about the human factor in driverless cars?

With all the excitement about driverless car technology, is it possible we’re forgetting the human factor?

It’s a valid question posed in The Conversation and adds balance to the autonomous vehicle discussion, which always focuses on technology rather than people. Like any new technology, driverless cars will create problems for humans.

First, much of the hype about driverless cars depends on all cars on the road being autonomous.

If they are not, then two technologies and two types of infrastructure have to operate side by side. While driverless cars do not need traffic lights or signage, ordinary cars do. Not only that, driverless cars would have to recognise the difference between a car with a driver (unpredictable) and one without (predictable).

Second, many future projections depend on nobody owning a car at all. Instead they would hire a car on demand from a driverless fleet.

This makes sense in crowded and concentrated cities. But is less likely and uneconomical in the outer suburbs or regional areas where you cannot find anything like a GoGet. It also creates problems for people who regularly need to store and carry goods in their vehicle.

Third, getting rid of people in the safety equation is not that easy. When people drive at slow speeds, they may need to make eye contact with a pedestrian, or wave a cyclist to go ahead. An automated car would have to understand body language or the pedestrian would have to know in advance the car has no humans in it and behave with caution.

Road congestion?

These are only three possible reasons why driverless vehicles may not be such a heady revolution:

Alexa Delbosc of The Conversation states driverless cars could become popular among people with disabilities or those without licences. Unfortunately, this could create more congestion, not less. If they become more attractive than public transport, for example, the roads will be heavily overused.

Finally, if people are not convinced by the technology, or simply want to hold on to the joy of driving, driverless and self-driven cars will have to exist together. According to one YouTube observer, humans act no better than monkeys when they’re driving. So how will uncontrollable monkeys and autonomous vehicles co-exist?

Safer roads?

Government figures show road deaths per year have fallen. In spite of population growth and a threefold increase in registered motor vehicles in 45 years, they fell from 3,798 deaths in 1970 to 1,271 at October 2016 (364 in NSW this year).

Taking the human factor out of driving is supposed to make the roads safer and reduce accidents further (75% of accidents are human error). But with two types of vehicle on the road, there could potentially be more accidents – and more difficulty deciding who caused them.

A system of driverless and self-driven cars creates a world of opportunity for insurers. But nobody can yet say how this will work. It’s a brave new world not everyone necessarily welcomes.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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