IMAGINE the scene of a car crash sometime in the future: two shiny saloons have bumped in the city street and, although both vehicles are dented and stationary, the occupants – including one family and one person on their own – are moving around inside, unbuckling themselves, checking. Everyone is a bit shocked. No-one is seriously hurt.
The scenario plays out like this….
One of the two cars, the one with the family inside, is a robot-driven car. The other has a human driver.
After 30 seconds, doors open and the ‘Alpha Males’ get out. One of them puts his mobile on to speakerphone and points it at the other. They both stop squaring up to each other and listen. It’s not a robot voice, it’s someone from the service centre in Liverpool with a friendly regional accent.
‘Hello, is that Tim? Are you all OK? This is Alice from Road Assist, I’ve seen the video and data and a Driver Nurse is on their way, but do call 999 if you think anyone needs urgent help. ‘
Both drivers smile ruefully. It’s the first time either of them has been involved in an accident where one of the cars has been driven by a computer.
Of course they have seen the information videos but it still feels good that an actual person is now back in charge. Alice seems to know what she’s doing.
The two men, and the others, get out and sit at the café across the street. Michael has moved his own car to the kerb and Tim’s robot-vehicle, on a short-term hire, has parked itself safely.
Both of the men are sitting, sipping tea and reading their phones. Each has been texted three or four times already: ‘Does anyone need an ambulance?’ ‘Are you all safe and away from the vehicles?’ ‘A Driver Nurse is on their way and will be with you in 15 minutes’. ‘Please let us know if you need a free replacement vehicle by clicking here.’
Both Tim and Michael have now had a conversation with Alice in Liverpool, and Michael (who’d bumped Tim’s robot-hire from behind) was pleased. Alice had told him that as Tim was a Pioneer Member, neither of them would lose their no- claims bonus and the first £300 of garage costs would also be covered for the at-fault driver. That was probably Michael who was pleased but puzzled: ‘So, mate, why’s that, then? We’ve had a bump – and let’s say it’s my fault. How come they’ve covered the costs for the bodywork-straightening on my car, too?’
Tim smiled and sipped the tea that Alice said she would pay for. And which his family was enjoying, too.
“Apparently, the big problem with robot cars is that we don’t trust them; even though they are statistically much safer, cheaper to run, and better for the insurance firms – and the environment. So, to get us to use them they cover the small costs. “
Alice, in the meantime, had passed the e-files on to Payments. She’d confirmed it was a genuine but minor shunt and all the names and ownership details were correct. Now she was just watching the dot showing the location of the nearest Driver Nurse. Nearly there. Just in case.
Time for Alice to talk to Michael and ask him if he wanted her to sort out his car for him, too. If she could get him to talk to the Pioneer Team they’d offer to swap his car on a permanent basis. She smiled. Small bumps were rapidly becoming the best recruitment to robot-driving. None of it worked without a real person like her on the line, though….
That’s the future, maybe. Back in the real world of research and development, today, at this moment, we see VW developing an Audi A7 that will drive itself and, more importantly, be a car in which the handing over and taking back of control is easy and intuitive. An adapted A7 is moving around on roads and in car parks in California, testing the boundaries. And it’s far more than VW / Audi… Jaguar, Land Rover, Tesla and many others from a range of industries are in the same race, including Google and those from non-automotive lineages.
It’s a wave of innovation driven by more than technology. Demography plays its part, too, with ageing countries like Japan, traditionally resistant to bringing in large numbers of immigrants to solve a problem, likely to be major players in all forms of robotics in order to provide services for their elderly. Self-driving cars are an obvious way to help older people get around when they are no longer able to drive themselves.
The psychology of how humans interact with this level of technology is crucial. Researchers know that a crucial issue emerging everywhere is trust. Once machines did things that we told them. An engine-driver was always on the footplate. Now we are looking to use computers to make crucial, vital, decisions for us, everywhere and for everything. When the environment is traditionally human – and potentially fatal – like the front seat of a car, negotiating this boundary between a human’s customary role and the robot’s new role is problematic but essential.
Allowing humans to take back control – if they choose – will be important for years to come. Knowing when this is a good idea and signalling it will become a whole new part of our new, extended, humano-robotic culture.
As the scenario above shows, we already have much of the technical, social and commercial infrastructure in place to help build this trust. Insurers and human-powered call centres are going to play as big part as engineers.
Alice will have her role in Wonderland… at least for now. Until, of course, she is replaced by a robot with a friendly accent. Probably not one called HAL, though!