Fully self-driving cars are probably just four or five years away... are we ready?
Sceptical public and slow development of a regulatory framework pose biggest problems
Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein. For me, these are the gods of science fiction writing. I devoured their books in my late teens and stayed up until stupid o'clock in college reading them. I enjoyed their books not only because they opened up a view to another, often dystopian, universe, but because they opened up a world of future possibilities.
The greatest of those possibilities was the creation of artificial intelligence (AI), but as anyone who has read their books knows, these authors were not using the proposition of AI as a simple plotline in their stories.
They really did attempt to bring to life the real-world impact the introduction of AI would have on a society. They hypothesised the socio-economic impact it would have. They looked hard at the ethical issues that would be thrown up by AI. The concept, and these questions, fascinated me.
About two weeks ago, the pages of those books came to life when I sat behind the wheel of a Volvo self-driving vehicle in the courtyard of Dublin Castle. With its autonomous capabilities, I could drive from Dublin to Cork on the motorway and let the car do the driving for me. What was once the realm of science fiction is now a reality, but still a novelty for most. In the coming years, it's going to become an everyday certainty.
I was in Dublin castle, by the way, because the RSA was hosting its annual International Conference, which this year focused on connected and autonomous Vehicles (CAVs), or self-driving vehicles, as they are known.
We had a panel of experts from around the world talking about developments and the revolution in CAVs. One thing all agreed on was that, from a technology point of view, fully self-driving cars are probably just four or five years away.
It's clear that the technology is developing at high speed, but what's not moving at the same pace is the development of the regulatory framework to allow their introduction to public roads, particularly at EU level.
Another barrier is the public's willingness to embrace the reality of self-driving cars. Alvin Toffler wrote in his book 'Future Shock' that when the pace of change in society is so big, and so fast, it simply overwhelms people. He believed that the rate of technological and resulting social change left people disconnected and disorientated - future shocked.
RSA-commissioned research, conducted by Behaviour and Attitudes and presented at the conference, confirms that Irish road users are not ready for self-driving cars.
Awareness is high (73pc), but the research showed that only two in five believe self-driving cars are a good idea. There is still some way to go before Irish people have confidence in self-driving cars, with 39pc admitting they wouldn't trust one to take them safely to their destinations.
Despite these misgivings, the public say the main benefits of self-driving cars are easier and safer driving.
The survey also found that more than a quarter have a strong interest in owning a self-driving car - something that declines with age.
Of course the RSA's interest in self-driving technology is that it could drastically reduce or maybe even eliminate the main cause of road deaths, human error, which is the main contributory factor in almost 90pc of fatal crashes.
And almost half of those polled agreed that owning a self-driving car would lead to fewer deaths and injuries.