Are Autonomous Cars Just Around the Corner?

Three years ago, we all believed that autonomous cars were just around the corner – and we felt that was a good thing. Retain human control for the fabled blast in the country, but let the machines take on the drudgery of commuting and long-distance motorway work – and getting us home from the pub!

Range Rover Sport that managed to drive the Coventry ring road

So what’s changed?

It was shocking to read, in Autocar, that Andy Palmer, boss of recently floated Aston Martin, quoted as saying “The idea of full autonomy being widespread in my lifetime is absurd. Full Level 5 systems are a moonshot.” As an aside, Mr Palmer was also scathing about Brexit, confirming that the delay was the worst of all worlds, preferring a decision, any decision, to be made to close down the uncertainty.

Andy Palmer of Aston Martin

We have some doubts about the direction of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd as a company, but we respect Andy Palmer as a well-connected, senior car-industry figure. So when he says that full autonomy is a pipe-dream, we listen.

Another issue revealed to us is the autonomy “big accident” risk. When autonomous cars crash, they tend to be large ones! If humans have crashes, mostly they will realise that something has gone wrong and slam on the brakes at the last split-second. Whilst this does not prevent the crash, it does mean that some deceleration occurs before impact, and so the crash happens at much reduced speed. Typically, crashes in autonomous cars happen because of a failure to correctly interpret the surroundings of the vehicle. And thus the autonomous car hasn’t noticed anything wrong – so it ploughs into the obstruction at full speed! Ooops.

There have been two famous crashes, where Teslas have sped straight into the side of juggernauts parked across the highway. Speculation among the online community (oh dear, not the most reliable source then) is that the crashes happened because seeing a juggernaut sideways is such an unusual occurrence that the AI-developed software interprets the sight as an overpass bridge and so ignores it.

Finally, there is the fabled issue of how can one let a computer decide whether to swerve away from a man in the road, if that then endangers two children on the pavement.

However, we are not convinced that these issues will prevent autonomous cars. At its present stage of development, it appears that sensors, processing power and software are not quite there. But these are engineering problems that are easy to define and will be solved.

  1. Computers are very good at measuring distances and heights. Therefore, interpreting a truck as a truck and not a bridge can be pre-programmed. Likewise, new types of sensors will be developed so that cars will know much better than human drivers what is going on around the vehicle. Add to that car-to-car connectivity, so that each car knows the intention of all the vehicles within half a mile, and suddenly an autonomous car is much better placed to co-ordinate its movements with those of all the surrounding cars.

  2. We do not agree with the idea that humans are better at split-second, morally loaded decisions than computers. In a crash situation, the choices made by a driver will be essentially random, or pre-programmed by their normal reaction. Given a little forethought by the software programmers, 99.9% of situations can be managed for an optimal result rather than the vague human output.

  3. Convoys of communicating vehicles can travel closely together, allowing for more efficient use of roads, and greater fuel efficiency.

  4. We wonder if Mr Palmer’s reluctance over self-driving cars is that it removes a key justification for buying an Aston Martin – and that providing such systems is also beyond the capacity of a relatively tiny car company?
  5. However, combining human drivers with convoys of autonomous vehicles could be tricky.

It is this last point which is exercising us! We believe that fully autonomous roads will happen within the next 10 years. Our worry is that will the take over of roads by autonomous vehicles mean that car enthusiasts in their old-fashioned, petrol engined “classics” are banned from going out at all eventually?

Why The Green Belt Is Bad For The Environment

Green Belts in England

The Green Belt system was created by that great reforming Post-war Government. And like that administration’s other much-loved offspring, the NHS, the general public has massive affection for it.

Fourteen cities in England are restricted from ever greater sprawl by green belts. That has to be a great thing right? We all love our green and pleasant land, so what is not to like? Well quite a lot actually.

  1. By limiting a city’s growth outwards, the inevitable effect is increased population density; more stressful living in ever smaller dwellings and more congestion – and the pollution from more people concentrated in a restricted area.

  2. This increased pressure on land use means that existing green spaces within the city will be slowly lost to development. And so the crammed-in population – who have very little access to the greenbelt farmland – have less natural environment than in a larger, less constrained conurbation. The city loses its lungs.

  3. Limiting the size of a city will increase land prices as people and businesses compete for a scarce resource. So lower added-value work leaves the city to cheaper environs – and the lower skilled are thus forced out too. You really can’t get the staff, dear.

  4. This same increase in land prices, plus the congestion of a termite-hill city, encourages people to commute away from the city, out across the green belt to towns and cities which would otherwise be way beyond the commuter zone.

    For example, thousands of people commute into London every day from places as far away as Southampton, Oxford, Coventry and Peterborough. There may be a small element of wanting to live in these places anyway (though not Coventry and Peterborough, obviously). But the real reason is economic. Away from London, a larger house with a garden is so much cheaper that the pain and expense of commuting remains attractive. Imagine all the extra pollution, greenhouse gases and lost productivity from these long-distance travellers.  All the London Green Belt has achieved is to move the growth that would have occurred around London to be spread over the whole south-east of England.

Protected Countryside

Despite the positive image, and just like the NHS, the law of unintended consequence looms large over the green belt. We don’t want to see it abandoned, but it does need to be slackened off a notch or two.

Time for the Green Belt to be reformed.

Karate – Not that sort of Green Belt