Saturday 7 December 2019

Self-driving cars will bring us back to our beloved pubs ... and safely home again

Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute, talks about developing autonomous cars during the 2016 CES trade show
Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute, talks about developing autonomous cars during the 2016 CES trade show
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Self-driving cars are being tipped to cut drink-driving and help rebuild rural Irish businesses, experts and campaigners say.

Ford and Toyota have announced new plans for self-driving cars this week at CES, the world's biggest technology show.

"Ireland would be a really suitable country," said AA director of consumer affairs, Conor Faughnan. "It's the future and it could really impact drink-driving problems here."

And the technology is being backed by some campaigners who believe existing drink driving laws are damaging rural communities.

"This technology will be welcome if it helps people living in rural Ireland living," said Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae, who believes strict drink-driving laws are "decimating" businesses in rural Ireland. "But it would want to come quickly."

Plans for a new generation of autonomous vehicles vary from assisted driving to complete self-navigating cars that need no human input while moving.

The technology would allow someone with diminished or no driving ability to safely and legally use a car to move along Irish roads.

"We want to make a car that is incapable of causing a crash," said Gill Pratt, head of Toyota Research.

The Japanese car maker wants to save 30,000 lives annually with self-driving cars, he said.

Ford chief executive Mark Fields told the Irish Independent that autonomous vehicles would be "affordable" and "not just for wealthy people".


Irish road authorities have not yet begun to plan for self-driving cars and the vehicles are not expected to be passed legally fit here for several years.

However, several US states have granted licenses to companies such as Google and Ford to run increased testing using existing roads.

"In ten or fifteen years, rural publicans may well see their customers drinking and afterwards tell their car to safely bring them home." said Mr Faughnan. "The technology is literally already there to do this. It's just a matter of time until the legal and social norms catch up."

Kerry TD Michael Healy Rae has been critical of existing drink-driving laws, claiming that they have stopped rural pubs and businesses from being able to make a living.

"If these new cars aren't priced out of the reach of ordinary people, then yes I can see them making a positive change to the situation," he told the Irish Independent.

Toyota Research boss Gill Pratt said that self-driving cars will be particularly useful for the elderly and people with special needs.

Meanwhile, Ford says that it plans to triple to 30 the size of its fleet of self-driving test cars as part of an effort to accelerate autonomous vehicle development.

Self-driving cars have emerged to dominate this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the world's biggest consumer technology conference. Held in Las Vegas, the event sets many of the tech trends for the year. It is attended by over 150,000 delegates and 3,600 exhibitors who are presenting the latest tech products over display areas that measure more than 20 times the size of Croke Park.

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