There was a clear shift in opinion when two experts went head-to-head at the 2017 National Road Safety Conference to debate the road safety implications of ‘driverless cars’.
The two participants, Dan Phillips, GATEway project manager at the Royal College of Art, and Christian Wolmar, writer and broadcaster, debated whether driverless cars will be good or bad for road safety.
Having won the toss and elected to bat first, in his opening remarks Christian Wolmar described driverless cars as “a future that will never happen”, adding that “all cars will have to be driverless” (to deliver safety benefits) and “the transition period to driverless cars will be endless”.
As an example of the “insuperable barriers” to the idea, he said because driverless cars “will be programmed not to kill people…they will have to stop”, adding that “pedestrians won’t let driverless cars through” and “‘bad people’ will go out of their way to stop them”.
In conclusion he said “forcing us into driverless pods is a political decision” and urged supporters of the technology to “be careful what you wish for”.
In response, Dan Phillips pointed out that “a significant majority (of the population) have a positive attitude to driverless vehicles” because they will be “cleaner, greener and safer”.
Dan Phillips said that “94% of crashes involve human choice or error” – adding that “fatality rates in manufacturing are falling as automation increases”.
Using specific examples, he explained how Tesla’s crash rate has “dropped by 40% after introducing anti-crash software”.
Again referencing that “almost all road deaths are down to driver error”, Dan Phillips said “driverless vehicles won’t get drunk, angry or be distracted”.
He concluded by pointing out the social benefits of driverless cars, asking delegates to “look at what people do (with their time) on public transport and as passengers in cars”.
What did the audience think?
The audience was asked, before and after the debate, whether they thought driverless cars would be good or bad for road safety.
While the majority voted ‘good’ in both polls, there was a significant shift in favour of ‘bad’ in the second vote, as shown in the graphic below.
Before the debate:
Not sure: 38%
After the debate:
Not sure: 30%