Horizon: Dawn of the Driverless Car

Dawn of the Driverless Cars
Picture Shows: Teena Gade. Photographer: BBC. Image Copyright: BBC.

Pokémon Go reminded us all last year of the thrill that can be had from progressing to the next level of a game.

So, when Horizon: Dawn of the Driverless Car tells us that there are five levels of vehicle autonomy and the endgame for software companies and car manufacturers is achieving level 5 (full autonomy); it’s hard not to understand why everyone involved in the development of the tech seems so thoroughly excited by it.

“Soon, we’ll be able to have our cake and eat it” muses narrator Sara Pascoe. But, will we? Unlike smartphones, part of the joy of our four-fendered friends, is the sense of control they give us. Driving isn’t the chore that synching phone application content to desktop is, so the benefits of autonomy don’t initially, if you’ll pardon the pun, seem to compute.

That connection between man and machine isn’t automation’s purpose though, as Horizon makes clear. This is about safety. Globally, more than one million people are killed every year on our roads, and the majority of these incidents occur because of human error. This is something that autonomy is going to do its damnedest to fix.

And how? Well, by doing what carmakers and the suppliers that support them have always done – racing. We learn that Formula E-esque electric racing cars are in development right now that operate entirely without a driver. One in particular – the ‘Devbot’ – that has been developed to compete in a new FIA series called ‘Roborace’, knows Silverstone better than Lewis Hamilton.

Showing us that the testing of autonomous tech is so similar to how conventional vehicles are developed – including the use of closed circuits, data collectors and camouflaged drives around urban areas – begins to put those fears of the unknown to rest.

Dawn of the Driverless Car (DOTDC) is an interesting and worthy torchbearer of the ‘Horizon’ prefix. Rather than thrash out fors and againsts for autonomy – à la drivetime LBC – it instead chooses to realign our thinking on what remains a controversial topic. We climb aboard jumbo jets with our dearly beloved to meet Mickey Mouse in Orlando and think nothing of the fact that only computers and radar are keeping us at 36,000 feet, so why wouldn’t we do the same when running out to fetch a pint of milk from Tesco?

However. One big question remains. What happens when a car encounters a no-win situation? No one on DOTDC has an answer, and until one is forthcoming, autonomy level 5 will continue to allude us.

Horizon: Dawn of the Driverless Car is available on BBC iPlayer.