The self-driving car conundrum

Ross Boyd

Self-driving cars are just another addition to roads already packed with danger.

The idea that self-driving cars are a new danger on roads already carrying cars, cyclists, public transport and pedestrians is a preposterous notion. Fortunately, it is being used less and less as an excuse to ignore a revolutionary idea. Self-driving cars will likely not completely eradicate deaths on roads or give Shane Ross further excuses to place regulations on an unknown medium, which is not even correctly identified by most people.

Self-driving cars have not yet reached Irish roads and it will take at least a few years for them to take to the streets. While some may see Tesla’s autopilot as some sort of self-driving capability, it is officially considered to only have an autonomous level of two, with human only control being zero and fully self-driving cars being five or six.

It must be noted, however, that Tesla’s rather lacking autopilot has saved many crashes from occurring, as can be seen through a quick search of the technology automatically avoiding crashes by human error. Human errors are the predominant reason for crashes with roughly 90 per cent of car accidents by this alone. Distractions, drunk driving and speeding are the most common despite measures in Ireland to severely punish those caught by these errors.

What about the 10 per cent? Surely this would be because of the technology failing? It most likely is, although not exclusively. In 2018, one of Uber’s self-driving cars ran over and killed a pedestrian. However, it also emerged that the car had a safety driver and that the safety driver was distracted by their phone before the accident occurred and was ‘entirely avoidable’ according to the investigation report. In a new study of self-driving car accidents in California, all but one of thirty-eight accidents were caused by humans.

The major argument of the cars self-driving capabilities though, is that they are not tested in more extreme conditions, such as rain or snow. Indeed, many companies accept this as being as problem, as the conditions to achieve this are rare and face many more variables in the technology for self-driving cars. In an Irish context, Lero and Valero announced a collaboration to develop technology for the cars in the rather familiar place of Galway and the West coast of Ireland as its testing grounds with NUI Galway. It can allow cars to better deal with fog, heavy rain, darkness and even animals that can commonly stray along the long, winding roads of Galway and Mayo.

While ideas can be thrown around, and innovation scary for both people and politicians alike, it seems again that people and their willingness to play with their new toys and create an argument for natural selection proves fruitful, with some even climbing into the passenger seats or on the roofs of cars. Even with the challenges of both cities and rural obstacles, from nature both in the sky and on solid ground for the technology, it seems likely that the quicker we remove humans from the equation, rather than limiting self-driving cars capabilities, that we can have safer roads for all road users, by intention of otherwise.

Ross Boyd

Image credit: Alison Clair