The Wiki Man

Google's driverless car has finally crashed. Might humans be safer?

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

A first last week: a Google driverless car in autonomous mode was partly at fault in a collision, interestingly one involving a bus. The car was merging into a lane of faster-moving traffic to dodge a pile of sandbags in a collapsed drain and nudged in ahead of the bus on the assumption that its driver would give way. He didn’t.

I suspect this may be a failure of social intelligence. Human drivers, for all their faults, can intuitively read the behaviour of other road users very well. We instinctively know that bus drivers are less likely to give way than car drivers. Understanding humans is always going to be easier when you know what it’s like to be one: in reading human emotions, even the best technology still lags far behind the typical domestic dog.

Google is currently testing its cars in California, where there are few pedestrians. It remains to be seen how they will cope with mischievous British teenagers. What is to stop people impatient to cross the street from simply walking out in front of driverless cars knowing the car will swerve to avoid them? We don’t do it now because of the risk of driver error — or rage. Will Google’s cars need to get aggressive occasionally? (Anger is nature’s way of discouraging people from dicking us around.)


Some pundits now suggest the idea of a wholly driverless car may be a case of overreach, driven more by ideology than common sense. Many of the promised gains in safety can be achieved by enhancing conventional cars, while the most irksome aspects of driving (parking, long motorway journeys, stop-go traffic) can be automated quite easily. Reaching a point where driving is 90 per cent less boring and 95 per cent safer is straightforward — akin to what already exists on aircraft. Going beyond that to a point where cars can be trusted to drive around unoccupied is much harder.

The 100 per cent driverless solution appeals to technologists because Silicon Valley, for all its wonderful experimentalism, often falls for the ‘Great Efficiency Fetish’. The lovechild of American puritanism and economic theory, this is the rarely challenged belief that life as a whole is always improved by automating and optimising all of its parts, and replacing human judgment with machine intelligence. It is a central tenet of this ideology that all efficiency gains are good: you must never ask wider philosophical questions such as ‘And this time you’ve now saved…? What will you actually do with it?’

As an example of the Efficiency Fetish at its worst, there is a start-up in San José (purpleapp.com) which, to save you visiting a petrol station, drives a tanker to your office or home to fill up your car. This is a classic example of narrow efficiency, in that it solves one problem only to create another problem somewhere else. Having magically saved five minutes because you didn’t stop at a petrol station, you will get home to find you’ve run out of milk. As any Briton knows, selling fuel is not the sole purpose of a petrol station: its principal value is as a place to buy an M&S pork pie without your wife finding out.

Picasso once said ‘Computers are useless — all they give you are answers.’ He had a point. Something about technology seems to dispose people to come up with narrowly efficient solutions to completely the wrong problem. It always strikes me as bizarre that the country which is most obsessive about time-saving technologies has never even considered the possibility of taking more than two weeks’ holiday every year. When Bernie Sanders proposed making two weeks’ paid vacation mandatory in Congress last year, he was widely denounced as a communist.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • davidshort10

    In an early Tarzan film decades ago, the apeman made the same point. I think someone was extolling the train and how it saved lots of time. Wise Tarzan said: “What do with time?”

  • sir_graphus

    ” As any Briton knows, selling fuel is not the sole purpose of a petrol station: its principal value is as a place to buy an M&S pork pie without your wife finding out.”
    Spot on, Rory. A man after my own heart.

  • Frank

    Totally agree, but it is profoundly depressing that our own Department of Transport and even Downing Street have fallen for this driverless car malarkey.

  • Al_mac

    Rory misses the bigger philosophical point regarding driverless cars: you are sitting in the passenger seat and two people jump out in front of the car. The car swerves and drives over the cliff, killing you, but saving two lives…..
    More practically, do the cars have a switch so that when you land in France you can tell it to drive on the right side of the road rather than the left?

    • fundamentallyflawed

      Like in Knightrider in the KITT v KARR face off?

    • Ian Walker

      Your argument is fundamentally flawed in the assumption that the French would allow anything as modern as a driverless car in their country.

      They will only allow driverless cars once they can be proved to have been developed by French programmers who are all qualified ski instructors.

  • Perry Dace

    What would I do with the time? It almost doesn’t matter, almost anything would be better sitting behind the wheel in bloody traffic. One could read, write, listen to podcasts, take up knitting

    • fundamentallyflawed

      Unless like me you are struck with chronic travel sickness and your only options are too be driving or be asleep

      • Perry Dace

        Then nap, or drive yourself (most of the prototypes I’ve seen have manual controls as well if you want to take over)

  • Stephen Wigmore

    I have wondered how the cars will go from coping with giant American roads and simple cross-junctions, to complex roundabout filled British cities.

  • Kalyan Deb

    One more pleasure (of driving a car) is being taken away trading with safety!

    • WillG

      You don’t drive in London then. Or you enjoy anger

      • jeremy Morfey

        Driving in London used to be fun until they went mad on the traffic lights. My limit of tolerance through London’s traffic lights is about 1 1/2 passes, then I go psychotic. Taxis are sport though, like jousting with real rhinos.

        My father, who used to do the commuter run knew Hammersmith better than anyone. I reckoned I knew a better way of doing it, so I challenged him to a race. He took the middle lane off the Great West Road into roundabout, so that he was correctly placed to avoid traffic snarled up on the left and go on the outside onto the Shepherd’s Bush Road. I took the inside lane though off the Great West Road. Nearly always there was an aggressive bus or similar lunatic in the middle lane ready to do battle with oncoming traffic on the roundabout. Thus covered on my right by a buffer zone, I could sneak in on the inside where a dead zone appeared, and while the bus was still battling it out holding up the traffic on the roundabout, it gave me the chance I needed to move to the middle lane ready for a swift exit to Shepherd’s Bush.

        Then they put traffic lights there and it ruined everything. Now everybody is stupid and just sits there resigned about the holdup.

  • carl jacobs

    They can have my steering wheel when they pry it from my cold dead fingers.

    • CO Jones

      Will that be immediately after a car crash, then?

      • carl jacobs

        Of course not, because I am not dumb enough to put my a$$ in a driverless car – especially when that car isn’t a pampered, feted, pristinely maintained prototype intended by Google marketing to prove the safety of the concept.

        • jeremy Morfey

          It’s not because you are dumb enough to put your a$$ in a driverless car; it’s because someone else is dumb enough to put his/her/indeterminate’s a$$ in a driverless car and they’ve just driven into you.

  • mikewaller

    There is a very clever short story by whom I cannot remember set in a world in which everything has long since been handed over to machines. Then – presumably having nothing better to do – some unemployed human re-invents a basic from of mathematics and with this new skill is able to achieve things that has come to be seen as entirely the province of the machine. The first reaction is to prosecute him as a practitioner of black magic; however in defending himself he is able to show the ablest of his interrogators the underlying logic of what he is about. The upshot is reversion to the use of humans in a number of dangerous activities previously allocated to machines, not because the humans were abler, but because they could be replaced at far less cost!

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