Sunday 20 January 2019

Will autonomous cars give us more time to relax or will they drive us around the bend?

We hear a lot about autonomous driving and connectivity in our new cars these days. It is widely predicted that vehicles will take over our job at the wheel. But will we miss the driving, or will it be a godsend to be rid of poor drivers? Declan O'Byrne reports

Autonmous driving
Autonmous driving
Stephen Richardson
Autonmous car

It was an inauspicious start to my research. When I asked my wife casually whether she liked driving and, if so, why, she replied: "Because when I get into the car on my own, it provides a rare opportunity to enjoy some peace and quiet.

"Being in the car on my own gives me some me-time, time to get my thoughts together, to think or to relax. It's the peace and quiet I like most. Most times I don't even bother with the radio or CDs."

Fair enough. Can I have my Rory Gallagher's Greatest Hits back then, please?

Now I should point out that my wife is an excellent driver. Driving is in her blood. Her father was a professional mini-bus operator, so she has an innate respect for all road users.

Stephen Richardson
Stephen Richardson

It's worth pointing out, too, that she is currently driving an 04 Mitsubishi Colt, a modest, robust 1.1-litre petrol that hasn't given a minute's headache in more than 13 years (100,000kms).

Interestingly, her comments echo the findings of other, far more extensive and ongoing research into the effects of driving on the psyche and vice versa.

It's a timely investigation, given we are now on the cusp of a so-called driverless future, which looks set to completely alter our motoring experience, as well as our emotional and intellectual approach behind the wheel.

For her Drivetime book, published in 2016, Professor Lynne Pearce, of Lancaster University's Department of English and Creative Writing, rifled the archives of British and American literature from the motoring century (1900-2000) to explore the things we think about when driving.

She discovered some positive psychological benefits to being behind the wheel.

Basically, most drivers experience a sense of escape when they turn on the ignition. Others, meanwhile get a significant rush of exhilaration and adrenalin.

Still more, depending on the capabilities of their vehicle, and the level of their addiction to the sound and smell of an engine, can be sucked into a state of near ecstasy by merely getting into the driver's seat.

However, the research also suggests there are benefits for the more tame drivers among us.

It points out that, for example, even at a sedate speed of 50kmh, while meandering through country lanes, drivers of all ages and social classes can experience, if not a buzz, then "a beneficial opportunity for problem-solving".

Professor Pearce points out that, based on her findings, driving can function as an effective alternative to cognitive behavioural therapy.

She explains that although driving is now more commonly associated with road-rage than relaxation "evidence of the ways in which driving can positively direct and structure thought raises interesting questions for our 'driverless' future".

Like most things in life, a car can mean many things to many people. For many it's just a means of getting from A to B; for others, thanks to the latest technological gizmos, it's their office. And, for some, with technical nous, it's even become their addictive high-tech playground.

For a professional driver, the views of Stephen Richardson, former mini-bus operator turned taxi man, from Skerries in Co Dublin, are surprising and conflicting at the same time.

Stephen (pictured) loves driving but is deterred these days by what he regards as the plummeting standards of motoring discipline.

Indeed, he is so disillusioned by his everyday motoring experience - professional and private - that, as he puts it: "If I knew when I started driving many years ago what the scenario would be today, I may not have bothered to learn to drive at all."

Everybody on the road today, it seems to him, is chasing the same space and few are prepared to relinquish it in the interest of courtesy, plain good manners and getting safely and efficiently from A to B.

"Frustration and tension have replaced motoring pleasure," he concludes.

As just one example, he cites the "astonishing" untutored behaviour of some drivers at roundabouts - and, more worryingly, the steep escalation in the level of on-the-road verbal and gesture abuse he witnesses every day.

Traffic-light sequencing is another cause for concern and one of several catalysts for poor road behaviour.

For John (not his real name), a former bus driver, accident investigator and now a Dublin-based barrister, 12 years spent behind the wheel of a city double-decker have given him an informed insight into both the psychological and physical issues involved in safe and pleasurable motoring. Not to mention the current negative controversies which, he says, need to be addressed.

The greatest legacy of his time as a bus driver, he feels, is "undoubtedly experience - there is really no substitute for that".

Disturbingly, the behaviour of drivers is becoming far more pervasive. In psychological terms it depends "on a combination of cognitive, affective and motivational aspects, which play a major role in road safety or risky behaviour".

That's the view of Andonis Vassilirades, Emeritus Professor of Social Science and Penal Studies at Middlesex University.

"Normally, hazardous driving is associated with aggressive behaviour," he says.

"This aggressive demeanour can be elicited in different overt and indirect ways. It includes selfishness, impatience, impulsiveness and reckless manoeuvres, speeding, running a red traffic light, flashing lights and blazing horns, revving the engine, abusive and derogatory language, swearing, insults and non-verbal offensive gestures."

People who jump into their car intent on driving in an aggressive manner are the same people, he says, who may have issues in the home or workplace. "They may feel oppressed and need to unleash their frustration on other drivers on the road. It is their way of attempting to exercise power over others and letting off steam.

"Aggressive drivers tend to be more inflexible and arrogant in their attitudes, less cooperative, have poor self-control, low temperamental thresholds and cannot defer gratification. They seek impulsive excitement without regard to risk. Indeed, risk adds to the excitement.

"The bottom line is that when all types of accidents are considered, the vast majority, fatal or not, are caused by human behaviour.

"Speed is part of it. But when speed is combined with other behaviour, particularly tailgating and driving under the influence of alcohol, the result can be devastating."

On the question of the need or otherwise for the psychological testing of drivers, a spokesman for the Road Safety Authority (RSA) said they were "not aware of any strong research evidence that shows a safety gain from such testing".

And on the issue of autonomous driving, he said there is "a new action" in the mid-term review of the road safety strategy, just published, that calls for a committee to be formed to look at the future arrival of autonomous vehicles.

So there you have it. Taking more control from the driver has its downsides for those who truly and responsibly enjoy the sense of movement and escapism one gets from driving.

Increasingly, I suspect, however, we will see strong evidence that, teething problems aside, a future of self-driving cars could be a lot safer than the mix of the good, bad and downright ugly we have now.

Indo Motoring

Also in Life