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driverless cars

Everywhere I go I hear people parrotting the technobabble emanating from the dark centre of the earth- silicon valley- that 'driverless cars are only five years away'. So you can forget driverless cars in any way shape or form that the phrase suggests. When technology is more than two years away it won't happen. The atom bomb was built in 18 months...pretty much. Oh yes, President Kennedy's prediction about going to the moon. Believe it or not, driverless cars are actually harder to make than going to the moon. The reason is: computing power (an electronic calculator has enough computing power for a moonshot).

Most people, even those in computing, fail to recognise the things that computers and robots are bad at and the things they are very good at. The narrow, nerdy people who write code (cliche but broadly true) naturally believe, want to believe, that computers are super powerful. Just as academics believe education is everything and journalists think newspaper leaders change the world. But computers are very bad at reacting in real time to real unexpected events- drop your laptop in a bath and see what happens. But humans are rather brilliant at this- hence motor racing and other sports which robots will never be able to compete at.

Driverless cars that resemble a tram may happen. On certain toll roads maybe. But people prefer cars to trams for a very good reason- you have control over where you go. Imagine the moment you leave the 'driverless train'- what happens then? That moment of transition from driverless to driver controlled is fraught with the potential for an accident. So there will have to be some kind of check system in place. Have you ever been in a station when they detach a carriage? Takes a while- for a good reason- everyone needs to be aware it is happening. Well, pedestrians and cyclists will want to know whether the thing bearing down on them is driver controlled or driverless- more confusion.

But the main reason driverless cars won't happen is that people derive meaning from driving. Driving allows for freedom and range, it is a zone of possibility, a speed machine just sitting in your drive. There is absolutely no reason why speed regulators couldn't be fitted to all cars- like trucks- but they aren't. Driverless cars is just a fancy version of a speed regulator except it isn't even possible to make it work.

The robber barons of the current age- who insist on forcing computer driven technology down our throats- will be eating a lot of humble pie on this one. Meaning centred evaluation of a future product is downplayed by the geeks- but look at kindle. On the face of it there should have been no contest. But kindles provide less meaning than a physical book (because a book is not just content). And e book sales are going down.

In the long run people don't want to live meaningless lives. Technology that increases meaning is the stuff to bet on, not the things that make our lives emptier, less meaningful and maybe not even that much more efficient.

There is however, one rather sinister caveat, driverless car technology allows for far more efficient surveillance. Imagine- your unregistered car joins a driverless train and bam! the cops are waiting at the other end. Or maybe the car is immoblised by the roadside. The powerful attraction of surveillance possibilities may cause a vastly expensive and inefficient driverless car system to be set up...and largely ignored by everyone who can.

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