Bar Man, by Jeff Hoyle, November 25, 2016

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Many people would agree that one reason for the decline of rural pubs is the introduction of the drink driving laws. Even the ones that have remained open have changed in character with an increased emphasis on food in an attempt to make up for the declining sales of alcoholic drinks. Could this be about to change with the introduction of driverless cars? I thought that these were something of a theoretical development, where the company could lay out a few cones or other obstacles on a test track and demonstrate what may happen 50 years into the future in a safe environment. Then I read a review of one of these futuristic cars in which the writer cruised down a busy autobahn in Germany with the car in total control. If that is possible, how long can it be before a car is able to bring you home a couple of miles down the road when you have had a few beers?

However, the more I think about it, the more issues come to mind. Would you travel in a car which does not have a manual override, allowing you to take control in case of emergency? If this facility exists, would it not be the case that in law you were deemed to be in overall control even if this had been delegated to the computer, and therefore subject to the same laws as at present? At the moment some cars have enough computer wizardry to essentially drive themselves, but the person in charge is expected to be vigilant in case of unexpected problems. In reality this will not happen, as demonstrated by the sad case in America, where the sensors did not pick up a white lorry pulling out with the setting sun behind, and the driver, who was allegedly watching a film at the time, was killed in the collision. Indeed, my experience suggests that even when in full control, some drivers’ attention wanders. The bar wife was diving me along a Midlands motorway and on the radio came the news of the incarceration of a lorry driver from King’s Lynn who had been involved in an accident whilst looking at his phone. I glanced out of the car window and saw the driver next to us – the type that never deviates from the middle lane, whatever the state of the traffic, texting as he drove, whilst a few seconds later there was a car with young children in the back, a woman in the passenger seat and the driver on the phone as he negotiated the busy M1.

Then there is the question of responsibility in case of an accident if the computer can be proved to be in charge. When we attended the philosophy evenings at the Kings Arms, one of the first problems we discussed is what to do if a runaway train is coming down the track with five people facing certain death unless you switched the points to kill one different person. In real life this situation would be decided on a split second instinct, without much thought, but a computer driven car may have to decide whether to swerve to avoid pedestrians, but by doing so run into a wall, putting the driver at risk. This will inevitably happen and there will be litigation, probably in America, to apportion blame.

So whilst the technology may advance to the point where driverless cars are feasible, I think that moral and legal problems may preclude them from being the solution to getting home from the pub when you have had a skin full.