“When con­ges­tion is heavy, hu­mans must not be per­mit­ted to drive them­selves”

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“When con­ges­tion is heavy, hu­mans must not be per­mit­ted to drive them­selves”

We spend so much time on TopGear glo­ri­fy­ing the automobile, cel­e­brat­ing the free­dom, ex­cite­ment and ad­ven­ture that cars de­liver. But that petrol­head dream is all too of­ten rare and feet­ing – driv­ing these days mostly in­volves star­ing at the back of a sta­tion­ary Vaux­hall Zafra, in­hal­ing diesel fumes and rue­ing the ex­is­tence of your fel­low mo­torists.

The sad fact is that there are too many cars on the road, so many that driv­ing has stopped be­ing fun. The world, par­tic­u­larly in big cities, has be­come sat­u­rated with the things and it’s slowly driv­ing me in­sane.

Elon Musk re­cently dreamed up a so­lu­tion to this ve­hic­u­lar epi­demic. He reck­ons build­ing a net­work of tun­nels, where cars are fer­ried on elec­tric sleds at up to 124mph, could cut grid­lock, but as much as I re­spect the man, that vi­sion is too ex­pen­sive, too com­pli­cated and sounds like the plot from a dis­as­ter movie.

I have a bet­ter so­lu­tion: we must re­move hu­mans from the equa­tion. I’m not talk­ing about mur­der here – I’d set­tle for the rapid in­tro­duc­tion of au­ton­o­mous cars. Yes, Rory’s bang­ing on about self-driv­ing cars again, but hear me out. You see, hu­mans just aren’t very ef­cient. We lack dis­ci­pline, co­or­di­na­tion and co­op­er­a­tion, which means trafc doesn’t fow as quickly or as smoothly as it ought to. Tail­gat­ing, chang­ing lanes and brak­ing too hard all con­trib­ute to in­ef­cient trafc fow and leads to grid­lock. Mo­tor­ways are the sim­plest ex­am­ple; the road could be per­fectly clear in your di­rec­tion, but all it takes is one driver to slow down, which then causes a con­certina efect that leads to trafc fur­ther down the chain.

Self-driv­ing cars will al­low trafc to move more fuidly through the roads. They’ll be co­or­di­nated, pre­dict each other’s ev­ery move and – in the­ory – never have to stop. A lane of au­ton­o­mous cars will be­have like a train, mov­ing as a sin­gle en­tity. We won’t even need trafc lights – as au­ton­o­mous cars can talk to each other and make de­ci­sions in a split sec­ond, they’ll sail through in­ter­sec­tions from ev­ery an­gle, nar­rowly avoid­ing each other as they con­tinue on their merry way.

And even if they do come to a stand­still, due to a pedes­trian cross­ing, they’ll get go­ing again with­out any un­due hes­i­ta­tion, ev­ery car in the en­tire queue ac­cel­er­at­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously with pur­pose, in­stead of one at a time.

I’m not alone in my think­ing. A De­part­ment for Trans­port study, which mod­elled trafc fow us­ing com­puter soft­ware, pre­dicted that there could be a 40 per cent cut in rush hour trafc if the ma­jor­ity of cars were au­ton­o­mous. Even if only a quar­ter of cars were driver­less, it could re­duce de­lays by 12.4 per cent. That’s the equiv­a­lent of cutting nearly eight min­utes of a one-hour jour­ney.

And no, this won’t di­min­ish the plea­sure of driv­ing, be­cause my plan caters for that, too. I de­cree all new cars must have user-switch­able au­ton­o­mous sys­tems. Out­side peak hours, hu­mans will be al­lowed to take con­trol of their own ve­hi­cles. How­ever, dur­ing peak times, or when con­ges­tion is heavy within that ve­hi­cle’s im­me­di­ate ge­o­graph­i­cal area, hu­mans must not be per­mit­ted to drive them­selves. Rush hour com­mutes will be a fully au­ton­o­mous afair.

If you’re des­per­ate to drive like a hooli­gan dur­ing peak times, you’ll have to make ar­range­ments to do so in a safe environment away from peo­ple who are try­ing to get from A to B. Go to a track day, learn to drift, en­ter a drag race.

This isn’t rocket sci­ence, peo­ple. This isn’t rev­o­lu­tion­ary think­ing. It makes per­fect sense. Yes, driv­ing is sup­posed to be fun, but, like any fun task that starts be­com­ing te­dious, it’s time to let the ma­chines do the heavy lift­ing.

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