The day when driverless cars become commonplace will be quite a day for humanity.
The question is, when will that be?
Professor Kristen Pammer has been researching the matter.
We’d heard a bit of talk that self-driving cars would be normal within 10 years. Kristen says that is way too optimistic.
“If it happens within 50 years, I’ll be surprised. There’s a lot that has to happen for driverless cars to be the norm with driving,” said Kristen, who is head of the School of Psychology at University of Newcastle.
She said the engineering side of autonomous vehicles was “moving ahead in leaps and bounds”.
“But it’s the psychological component that has had much less air time,” she said.
Worldwide laws state that vehicle operators must always be in a position to take control of the vehicle in emergencies.
But these laws, it seems, will need to be changed.
“Say you’re on your way home in your driverless vehicle, reading a book. Suddenly there’s a signal that there’s an emergency and you’ve got to take over.
“How long do you think it’s going to take you to do that? That is, to hear the emergency signal, disengage from your book, try to work out what the emergency is, then decide the appropriate response and take control of the vehicle.”
The research shows this would take a human eight to 15 seconds. Which is, of course, too slow.
So, if this is the case, it would make logical and ethical sense to design cars to stop humans from taking over driverless vehicles in emergencies.
“The vehicle would have to respond for you. People will feel very uncomfortable about that.”
But let’s say humans can accept this.
“Let’s say, hypothetically, we trust the technology. We’re now affording a car moral decision-making,” she said.
So let’s consider this scenario.
A driverless car is driving. Two children walk onto the road. A group of nuns is on one side of the road and a concrete barrier is on the other.
“What’s the car going to do? Does it kill the children, the nuns or the driver? And how will you feel about that? We haven’t resolved these issues.”
Nevertheless, Kristen says there are good reasons why driverless cars are set to be an important part of future transport.
“Autonomous vehicles are a very strong part of the Vision Zero philosophy, which is an international push for zero fatalities on the roads,” she said.
The World Health Organisation estimates that about 1.35 million people a year die worldwide in crashes on the roads. About 93 per cent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
Topics reported on Thursday that Roland Millbank had come across a “concrete thingy” on the grass near the Anzac Memorial Walk.
A Hunter Water spokeswoman told us that the concrete object was “a vent to the former Shepherds Hill Reservoir, which was built in 1929 as part of the expansion of the water supply system to inner city Newcastle”.
“The underground reservoir held 2.3 million litres of water before it was decommissioned more than four decades ago,” she said.
Readers told us about a similar concrete thingy at the top of Braye Park in Waratah.
This, we imagine, was a vent for the old Waratah reservoir.
We had an email this week from Michael Kerins, who was a lieutenant commander in the US Navy.
“In 1971, I visited Newcastle aboard the USS Hoel (DDG13). I took several photos of members of the community during our arrival and children who visited the ship,” Michael said.
Michael, now 71, lives in Washington State with his wife. He retired after 22 years in the Navy and also spent eight years with San Diego police.
“I was cleaning out a closet and found the photos. I thought the kids in the photos might get a kick out of seeing them after all these years. These children would be approaching 60 today,” he said.
The ship was in Newcastle for a port visit. It was on its way back to the United States, after service in Vietnam for six months.
“The people of Newcastle were very friendly,” Michael said.
Not all the locals greeted the Americans warmly. One of his photos showed a group of people holding signs and protesting. The signs said things like “withdraw all troops now” and “end the American alliance”.