Driverless cars; Brave new world or road to nowhere?

December 5, 2023

1950s vision of driverless car technology|road danger headline 1924

A Tesla whistleblower this week claimed self-driving car tech is not safe enough for public roads, but how safe is safe enough? After all, there's a double standard where road safety's concerned.

A once-in-a-decade train crash that kills 5 people will generate wall-to-wall media coverage, a public enquiry and changes to working practices, but the daily UK road death toll of 5 lives lost barely raises an eyebrow.

It wasn't always this way. A century ago, when cars were a relatively new phenomenon, the American public reacted to a soaring death toll with natural outrage. Newspapers labelled killer drivers as ‘remorseless murderers’ and likened road danger to an epidemic disease.

Bells on fire stations, churches and schools rang twice a day in memory of road deaths. Towns printed ‘murder maps’ showing locations of fatal collisions. Huge ‘safety parades’ featured wrecked cars occupied by bloodied mannequins, drivers dressed as Satan, and thousands of children dressed as ghosts - each representing a road death that year. The processions were followed by grieving mothers wearing a white star to indicate the loss of their child.


Car makers tackled this PR disaster head on by spinning a victim-blaming narrative; pedestrians hit by cars had only themselves to blame. They even coined term jaywalking, which was considered offensive. The word jay was slang for a yokel so today's equivalent might be 'country-bumpkin-walking'.

Given the auto industry has form, might the driverless car dream be just more spin?

Driverless car tech; Too good to be true?

We've lost count of all the benefits promised of driverless cars. Motorists are teased with visions of luxurious private retreats clever enough to take over menial tasks, but ready to relinquish control at a moment's notice. At the same time, pedestrians and cyclists marvel at the promise of every car travelling within the speed limit. However, if you think the claim that these cars of the near future will be involved in fewer crashes sounds too good to be true, you're not alone.

Christian Wolmar is an award-winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport: "People say we've got 1.25m people killed on the world's roads every year across the world - we will remove that danger - remove it with this technology. I'm not sure these driverless cars will ever be developed in the way that they envisage. There's no guarantee they actually will be safer."

It's hard to think of an aspect of life that wouldn't be improved by a reduction in our dependency on cars; better air quality, safer streets, quieter neighbourhoods, more independent children, not to mention helping to mitigate the climate emergency. However, it seems unlikely driverless car will provide an answer to these challenges. As society hurtles towards the brave new world promised by driverless car tech, there's a good chance it's a road to nowhere.

After all, we need fewer cars, not fewer drivers.

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