U.K. citizens are a proud people with a proud history, but they are not exactly leading the way when it comes to technological innovation. In the matter of self-driving vehicles, the U.K. refuses to be left behind. Engadget reports the “U.K. to get self-driving buses and taxis by 2021.”
“The U.K. won’t sit idly by while the U.S., Japan, and China put self-driving vehicles on their roads. The country’s government has announced an ambitious driverless public transport plan for 2021, including autonomous buses in Scotland and self-driving taxis in several of London’s boroughs, with state funding to the tune of £25 million ($33 million.)”
There are many details to be worked out, and it is important to note that these are small and extremely localized areas where the autonomous rollout will be taking place. While the cars and buses will technically be self-driving, they will have humans in the driver’s seat ready to take over at a moment’s notice.
At the moment, self-driving tech is still in its infancy and not quite ready for the real world. In some ways, putting a driver in a self-driving car makes the situation more dangerous. The driver still has to be attentive at all times as if she were operating the vehicle. But now, she has to make split-second determinations about when she should take over.
We have recently seen the fatal effects when the driver makes the wrong decision. They will do what humans do using merely human judgment. But the AI might be doing something very different. Waiting for the AI would have saved lives in some situations. Doing nothing might cost them. It is easier when a person knows they are in charge from the beginning. At some point, we just have to trust the AI to do what it is supposed to. That includes letting the AI make and learn from mistakes.
There are good reasons why autonomous vehicle testing is limited to small and predictable rounds and suburbs. Big cities like NYC are chaotic, sprawling, and traffic is rather more unpredictable. A taxi is ripping down Sixth Avenue in the middle lane. You are near the corner of 42nd Street across from Whole Foods. You extend your arm in a hailing motion and the taxi swerves across two lanes to let you in.
None of that is even remotely illegal. It is just the way you catch a cab in a city. Often, the people catching taxis don’t have time or inclination to use a ride-hailing app. They are in the moment. The whole transaction takes place without a lot of forethought. They are at point A and find that they want to be at point B as quickly as possible. Ah, there’s a taxi. Done.
Bus drivers also serve the human function of behavior control and customer service. Exactly what stop do you need to transfer to the airport from here? How much will that cost? These are questions that humans can handle on the spot. Even the best transit apps are still not as useful as a polite and attentive bus driver.
All these are problems that can be solved. But it also suggests that we will need more than taxis and buses that can drive themselves. We will also need to be retrained in what it means to hail a cab or ride public transportation.