The problem with autonomous cars is not cars

The problem is with humans who dig up roads and are late for meetings

autonomous cars
Image credit: Jens Herrndorff on Unsplash

There is a problem with autonomous cars. Actually there are a few but the one I discovered the other day may cause grid lock rather than free flowing traffic across our cities.

I was in London and had a dinner that I needed to get to and it was clear across town. In my wisdom I booked an Uber (with hindsight I should have just got on the Underground like a normal person).

The traffic was horrendous. What should have been a 50 minute journey turned into an hour and a half of frustration, honking, swearing and, well, you get the picture. The only way the driver got me there inside the hour and a half (and if I wasn’t there in time it would have been very embarrassing) was squeezing through backstreets, climbing the pavement and folding in wing mirrors to pass other frustrated cabs, cars, vans and occasional trucks.

The problem with autonomous cars will not be other cars. It will be the streets, the street furniture, the illegal parking, the illegal deliveries, the road works – don’t get me started on the road works…

If I had made that journey in a car whose safety rules had been designed by a computer I would still be sitting there now.

Squeeze past a line of parked cars with millimetres to spare? Computer says no.

Tuck in the wing mirrors to get round the truck? Computer says no.

Inch across a major artery, against all possible logic? Computer just reported you to the police.

You might say – and wisely – that the point is not the side streets, the point is unclogging the freeways and you would be right, up to a point. Once the side streets start backing up, so do the turnings on to and off the freeways. Once that happens, the freeways lose a lane and then your autonomous car computes that it is not safe to cut in, in order to leave the freeway.

Remember the amusing episode when the Chairman of Volvo was showing off his prototype autonomous car to the press. And it refused to move because the street markings were so bad that it judged it unsafe? That is just one example of the problem.

As long as there are road works, side streets and people being late for functions – not to mention ice, snow, storms – we will have a problem with autonomous cars.

In fact, the final battle between man and machine might well take place in the backstreets of London – or Chicago, or Paris, or the city where you live.


  1. You don’t mention the likelihood that in a future of autonomous cars, where avoiding accidents will be paramount, people will be able to cross the road at will, simply by strolling into the traffic and bringing it to a grinding halt. What larks!

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.