Is autonomous technology really progress? Why you'll never find me in a driverless car

KXDW0X young woman reading a book in a autonomous car. driverless car. self driving vehicle. heads up display. automotive technology.
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Would a driverless future absolve us of all responsibility? Credit: Alamy

The drive from Cannes to St Tropez is nothing short of spectacular, a meandering coastal road fringed by fire-coloured mountains and an impossibly blue Mediterranean. I’ve made the journey countless times since first visiting the south of France more than 40 years ago, yet it never fails to thrill and excite  in equal measure.

But it’s not just stunning scenery which makes this 86km stretch of the Cote D’Azur my favourite drive in the world. It’s the pleasure of motoring itself. The firing up of the engine, the supreme control of man over machine. It’s a sensation I initially experienced when I bought my first car – a red Triumph Herald - in 1976. Over 40 years and 60 cars later,  whether motoring on the Continent or negotiating the M1, I still feel the same.

It’s one of the  many reasons I find the surrender of hands-on motoring to the inexorable march of the driverless car so utterly baffling - even though, on paper, I should be the perfect candidate for  these robotic vehicles.

After all, what better way to prepare for  trials all over the country than by being chauffeured  to court while I sit in the back reviewing my papers?

Yet you will  never - never – get me in one of those things.  A position further bolstered by Dr Demis Hassabis, co founder of Google’s DeepMind, who recently declared it would be difficult to prove driverless car programmes were safe before putting them on roads  

A prototype Google self-driving vehicle being tested, to see whether it recognises a man on a bicycle Credit: Connor Radnovich/Eyevine

In my view we need the flexibility of human judgement rather than the rigidity of pre-programmed technology to determine how we drive. To read and respond to the nod of  the driver who lets us nudge in front at a junction. Or to react quickly when caught between a cyclist who jumps a light and a pedestrian engrossed on their phone as they step  off the pavement. The driverless car – with its robotical respect for the uncompromising rules of technology - can't deploy the judgement of Solomon. The experienced motorist can.

In fact these cars might not even recognise human beings at all – as proven by the self-driving car  Uber  which tragically "chose" to fatally strike a pedestrian after registering the woman's presence.

What also of the terrorists who,  heaven forbid, packs a driverless truck with explosives and  programme it to power through the evening rush hour? The consequences are unthinkable.

Meanwhile, as a solicitor, I think of the folly which will become road traffic law: for in the event of an accident, who would be in charge and who would be liable?

The driver? The registered keeper? The car manufacturer? The software developer? In fact will there be any criminal liability at all?.

David Beckham was famously prosecuted for speeding - but a huge question of liability arises once driverless cars become involved Credit: Rui Vieira/PA

Conversely – and even though as a road traffic lawyer, I would never advocate breaking the law - there are times when what is legal in terms of driving is not always what is sensible.

Take David Beckham, whom I represented after he was charged with driving at 76mph in a 50mph zone. The soccer legend felt he had  no choice but to speed because he was trying to escape a paparazzo photographer.

Had Mr Beckham been in a driverless car rather than his £150,000 Ferrari, it's not overstating the case to say he might not have lived to tell the tale had there been some terrible crash.

We also mustn't allow ourselves to buy into the view that all technology is progress. If it were so, Concorde would not have been grounded in the waste bin of aviation history.

We also wouldn't have stuttering  50mph traffic on empty "smart" motorways .

And will driverless vehicles become a licence to drink and drive, or persuade an exhausted motorist to take the trip that good sense would otherwise prevent?

The driverless car surely needs a fully alert driver in situ – if only to override the system when the unexpected happens.

In which case, what's the point of having  one of these vehicles in the first place? Or even taking a driving test?

Certainly it knuckles the argument about driverless cars liberating the elderly, disabled or any nervous would-be motorists. (I wouldn’t trust my sprightly 86-year-old mum in one of these vehicles for that very reason).

And so for all this, and more, I’ll never relinquish the autonomy of the steering wheel.

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