Hands off the wheel?

TechLife Australia - - THE WALL -

I glanced at the high­lights from the Google I/O con­fer­ence this morn­ing and one of the seg­ments fea­tured was about self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles, namely the Waymo com­pany and their fleet of cars. The pre­sen­ter men­tioned that all you needed to do was or­der a car and one would ar­rive at your door with no­body be­hind the driver’s wheel.

While it might have been elab­o­rated on in the full con­fer­ence feed, it left me won­der­ing about some­thing... Would you, as the pas­sen­ger, be obliged to sit in the driver’s seat or could you sit wher­ever you wanted? As far as I’m aware, there are no coun­tries with the nec­es­sary legals in place that state that pas­sen­gers do not have to be able to con­trol the car in case of emer­gen­cies — which would mean they would have to sit in the driver’s seat, hands ready to take the wheel. While this is ob­vi­ously a tran­si­tion­ing state, the fu­ture of driver­less cars is point­ing in the di­rec­tion of rad­i­cally re­design­ing cars — com­plete with ‘fam­ily so­cial set­ting’ in­te­rior and all forms of steer­ing/dash­board/ pedals re­moved.

Which takes us to an­other point... if, in these new Waymo cars, you don’t have to sit in the driver’s seat, what’s the wheel for? It eerily turns by it­self, so apart from bit of show­man­ship, it’s not re­ally nec­es­sary if no­body needs to sit there.

I’m ea­gerly await­ing the day I don’t have to drive some­where, de­spite the fact I quite en­joy the act of driv­ing. Think of the Can­berra–Ade­laide di­rect route drive if you could just fall asleep in one state and wake up in the next. It would def­i­nitely make travers­ing this coun­try of ours more bear­able. [ JEN­NIFER KILLIĆ ]

Ed replies: Quite the catch-22 there, Jen­nifer. You or­der a driver­less car, don’t have to drive it, but it does look like you have to be be­hind the wheel, watch­ing the road, and ready to take con­trol in case your ro­bot mo­tor gets into trou­ble. Waymo’s ac­com­plish­ments so far are a glimpse at a fu­ture that re­quires new laws. Here in Aus­tralia, the state of Vic­to­ria (cru­elly blanked out in your vi­sion of in­ter­state travel) has tri­alled driver­less cars thanks to new leg­is­la­tion that al­lows them on the roads, though some­one has to be in the car al­ways watch­ing and ready to take con­trol. Even with this leap of faith, con­sult­ing group KPMG reck­ons it’ll be an­other decade be­fore we’re ready for truly au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, based on peo­ple’s ac­cep­tance of the tech­nol­ogy and in­fras­truc­ture. As for the steer­ing wheel, we’d say its pres­ence an­chors the whole ex­pe­ri­ence mak­ing this new tech­nol­ogy fa­mil­iar, and there’ll still be times when you’ll need to take man­ual con­trol (like nav­i­gat­ing a tricky drive­way or al­ley).

I’M EA­GERLY AWAIT­ING THE DAY I DON’T HAVE TO DRIVE SOME­WHERE, DE­SPITE THE FACT I QUITE EN­JOY THE ACT OF DRIV­ING. THINK OF THE CAN­BERRA– ADE­LAIDE DI­RECT ROUTE DRIVE IF YOU COULD JUST FALL ASLEEP IN ONE STATE AND WAKE UP IN THE NEXT.

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