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Get in the back! The robot’s driving.

The much vaunted phenomenon of automated cars has returned again to the news this week, Read this here. Events like the DARPA Grand Challenge and their ilk continue however to demonstrate that robots can and probably will develop into the way forward for general purpose motoring and transportation.

The storms in Scotland yesterday saw enormous numbers of vehicles struggling to cope with the adverse conditions and either blowing over or bashing into each other and it probably wont be the last time the winter weather presents challenges to the UK motorist with snow gently falling over our Ayrshire offices again this morning.

These two events show the stark contrast between human and robotic drivers. The simple fact is, well before the end of the next decade, humans will be relegated from the drivers seat into the passenger seats. Ok perhaps not all vehicles will conform to this model. Some vehicles will still allow a human to sit behind the wheel, but only with a vigilant robot “supervisor” who will watch their every move and silently fix the human mistakes whilst simoultaneously scanning for unforeseen hazards. Driving a car as we do today will become a risky hobby which will only be possible on specially designed closed courses.

You think this sounds far fetched? Its no less far fetched however than the notion that humans could be trusted behind the wheel of a vehicle in the first place. Henry Ford would look at todays vehicles with incredulity if he did so in the context of the annual death toll on our UK roads which stood at over 2000 last year. The simple fact is we are terrible drivers and getting steadily worse as technology inside and outside vehicles demands more and more from us. The modern car is probably comparable in complexity of systems to a fighter jet of only a few decades ago.

Couple this with the fact that we are often just plain stupid, our eyesight is poor, our hearing suspect even if we choose not to be blasting the latest hits on our car stereos and we lack any appreciation at all of Newtonian physics, blindly tailgating at 80mph in rush hour traffic. Theres no escaping the fact that judgment is evident on the roads only by its absence. In stark contrast, robot drivers can be programmed with the most vulcan style logic coupled with sensory powers that put the human driver to shame.

The robots in the DARPA Grand Challenge could be easily programmed with the full highway code and could sense distances to within a millimetre in the daylight, in fog or even in the dark They could see in the dark and through the sort of fog that would blind any human driver. These robots are but the first members of a class of devices that will advance along a steep curve like that traced by computers and the Internet over the last two decades and will ultimately seem as old hat as a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in a few short years.

Its important however to bear in mind that filling the UK’s roads with robot controlled vehicles is about much more than road safety. The introduction of such capable vehicle control could enable the virtual elimination of traffic congestion by safely increasing the density of vehicles per mile by an order of magnitude. They could also eliminate the need for traffic lights, by having robot controlled vehicles safely nip through the gaps in the crossflow traffic rather than waste time waiting for green lights.

Robotic vehicles could also turn commutes into productive time enabling the human passengers to sit back and catch up on work, watch TV, access the net or even sleep. Indeed it would no longer be a necessity to be able to drive in the first place to make use of the road traffic networks enabling the very young or the very old to get from A to B. Imagine no more school runs or newly qualified driver deaths due to inexperience or worse. One thing is certain though. This prediction will seem ever so quaint in a few years as the whole model of how we move around will be rewritten in ways we cannot yet imagine by the introduction of automated transport. The advent of automated transport is as profound a change as the arrival of the horseless carriage 100 or more years ago and the impact on global society today is no less unpredictable.

Think about how our town centres will look in a world where no car parks are necessary. Nowadays, car parks need to be close to the places we need to get to such as workplaces, out of town shopping areas and town centres however in a world of automated transport, car parks could be anywhere, perhaps miles outside of the areas we needed to get to in the first place and can also store vehicles with far greater density since the whole system will be controlled by the system.

The most significant difference however is probably that in a world of automated transport, fewer people will need to own cars at all, relying instead on fleets of shared vehicles.

It certainly is strange to think of our great grandchildren marvelling at the 2009 KIA C’eed in a museum and looking with wonder at the old pictures of what used to be the M25 whilst listening to the Road to Hell by Chris Rea. They will probably wonder how we ever managed to cope with being trusted with a couple of tons of fuel injected steel.

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