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Transport's favourite myth: why we will never own driverless cars

It is often claimed the driverless car revolution is imminent. But all the hype obscures more urgent problems.

It seems that we are on the verge of a driverless car revolution. George Osborne recently announced that a “train” of automatic trucks controlled solely by the leading vehicle would be tested in Cumbria this year, one of eight driverless vehicle projects to receive £20m in funding from the government.

Trials of autonomous cars are already under way in Milton Keynes and Greenwich and far more extensive testing is being undertaken in the US. In recent testimony before Congress, Google claimed that its fleet of 56 autonomous cars had racked up 1.4 million miles over the past six years. The company predicts that autonomous vehicles will significantly reduce the 94 per cent of road accidents that are caused by human error each year and free up much of the 3,000 square miles devoted to parking across the United States.

The revolution, it is often claimed, is imminent. The Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, who wants to build trains with a top speed of 760 miles an hour in California and central Europe, said in December that his “fully autonomous” car would be ready to launch by 2018. All of this has created enormous hype, with the press suggesting that we will soon be able to sit in our cars – or “pods” – while being driven to work, where we will instruct the vehicle to park itself, or take the kids to school.

Yet even the most cursory examination of the present state of driverless car technology and the potential obstacles to its success – legal, social, economic, political and practical – suggests that a takeover of the mainstream transport system is about as likely as the long-awaited arrival of the futuristic jet packs of 1960s comic books.

Take the sensors, for instance. They may work fine in sunny California but could struggle to combat fog, snow and driving rain. Google’s autonomous cars have a somewhat patchy safety record: as of last month, they recorded fewer than 20 accidents, all minor (mostly rear-end shunts) and all, bar one, not the fault of the Google technology. This is slightly above the comparable rate for conventional cars and quite possibly the result of dangers – what if a mouse ran across the road? – that a human being would generally ignore.

However, it is the single incident caused by driverless technology, in a car that collided with a bus, that is most telling. According to Google’s accident report: “The Google AV [autonomous vehicle] test driver saw the bus approaching in the left-side mirror but believed the bus would stop or slow to allow the AV to continue.” This implies that the test drivers are still the ones making such decisions and that the cars are not “autonomous”. It raises a crucial problem for the new technology: risk.

Consider an autonomous vehicle trying to move into traffic, a manoeuvre that is impossible without some element of risk. Human beings often do it through some sort of interaction – say, flashing lights, or eye contact – and so an element of risk-taking would have to be introduced for autonomous vehicles, too. Once that happens, accidents will occur, and what parent would send his children off to school in a vehicle with risk hard-wired into its software?

The driverless car does not stand up to scrutiny. When pressed, Musk conceded that the “fully autonomous” car that he said would be ready by 2018 would not be completely automatic, nor would it go on general sale. There is a pattern. Whenever I ask people in the field what we can expect by a certain date, it never amounts to anything like a fully autonomous vehicle but rather a set of aids for drivers.

This is a crucial distinction. For this technology to be transformational, the cars have to be 100 per cent autonomous. It is worse than useless if the “driver” has to watch over the controls, ready to take over if an incident seems likely to occur. Such a future would be more dangerous than the present, as our driving skills will have diminished, leaving us less able to react. Google notes that it can take up to 17 seconds for a person to respond to alerts of a situation requiring him or her to assume control of the vehicle.

What is this technology for? The widespread assumption that driverless cars will be a shared resource, like the London Santander Cycles, is groundless. People like owning their personal vehicle because it is always available and can be customised to ensure that the child seat is properly in place and the radio tuned to Magic. Google may be right that a few parking lots will become redundant but it has no answer for the possibility that autonomy will encourage more vehicles on to the road.

The danger of all the hype is that politicians will assume that the driverless revolution obviates the need to search for solutions to more urgent problems, such as congestion and pollution. Why bother
to build infrastructure, such as new Tube lines or tram systems, or to push for road pricing, if we’ll all end up in autonomous pods? Google all but confesses that its autonomous cars are intended to be an alternative to public transport – the opposite of a rational solution to the problems that we face.

So why is George Osborne so interested in this technology? One possibility is that he considers it a way of weakening two of the last remaining bastions of union power: lorry and taxi drivers. Another is that he hopes it will provide a boost for the UK car manufacturing industry. Either way, the revolution, when it comes, will not be driverless. 

Christian Wolmar’s new book, Are Trams Socialist?, will be released next month by the London Publishing Partnership

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. 

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist