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Driverless buses could be coming to a place near you

It seems the wheels on the bus could go round and round without the help of a driver. The government has announced plans for driverless public buses, with bus firm First Group touted as interested.

Transport minister Claire Perry said work was underway to make 2015 the year of driverless vehicles, with a study planned for self-driving cars on public roads from January 1st in the UK.

The lack of a driver would ‘transform’ bus services in rural areas, Perry explained, where the cost of a driver is the biggest cost and a factor in why services are fewer in number. “Once we have resolved any regulatory issues that the department’s current review might highlight, this could be just the initiative to get the first driverless bus on the road.” 

Speaking at a road safety conference, Perry highlighted other autonomous vehicle benefits: “The advantage of driver assisting technology for disabled people or those with poor eyesight are clear. Let’s just imagine the life-changing opportunity then of a driverless car, not just for blind and partially sighted-people, but for all in our community. It will be truly transformational.

“What about the challenge for time-poor mothers with school runs to do? Driver assisting technology could open up new windows for productivity in jammed days.” 

Ministers are also said to be looking into the possibility of driverless trucks, presumably much to the dismay of truck drivers. The idea is that large vehicles could run nose to tail in close formation on major roads, freeing up space for other road users.

Perry believes the biggest barrier is not the technology side of things, rather, it’s changing people’s perceptions. “We are so used to being masters – or mistresses – of the road. Invincible. Always right. Even though it’s our own short-comings that lead to most accidents.” 

Car manufacturers are less convinced it’s a case of persuading motorists to take a back seat. Google’s chief of autonomous cars labelled self-driving cars stupid. Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, meanwhile, estimated their introduction is five to six years away once you factor in the adjustment of government laws and regulations.

There are already cars on the road with self-driving features, but automatic cruise control, lane assist, autonomous braking and so forth are not always 100 per cent reliable. Plus there’s a gulf of difference between autopilot features, which require a driver to oversee what’s going on, and complete autonomy, where you let the car do everything.

Experts can at least agree on the safety benefits of a self-driving transport system. Musk says a driverless car will be ten times safer than a human driver says in six years time, while Perry pointed out that human error accounts for 90 per cent of traffic accidents.

Anything to reduce road accidents is a good thing, but consider us a little skeptical. When our smartphones and computers can and do go wrong fairly easily, is it wise to put our lives in the hands of machines?

Based on a Google driverless car test in the US state of Nevada, we’re inclined to say no – for now, at least. But let’s not forget computers have a few clever tricks up their sleeve us humans would find impossible, such as knowing what’s coming around a blind corner, near-instant reactions and seeing through fog. 

Top Gear’s former Stig famously labelled driverless cars ‘terrifying’. “Robots are fantastic as dishwashers, but they don’t make very good drivers. The best computer onboard the car is a human, so it’s sad that they are trying to put us out of a job,” he added.

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