Driverless cars to save rural Ireland?

There was quite a kerfuffle last week with an embarrassing act of public stupidity by Kerry Co. Council. As you know, independent councillor Danny Healy-Rae put forward the ridiculous idea that people in rural Ireland should be allowed to drink and drive.

The Gombeens were allowed to take over the asylum that day. The attention-seeking stunt carried the approval of council by five votes to three, including seven mysterious abstentions and 12 absentees. It also made headlines around the world.

Unfortunately people seeing headlines like this across the globe tend not to see the follow-up information; ie that this was just a handful of fools being foolish, not any sort of genuine Irish policy.

The damage to the reputation of local Councils may be more profound. While most people broadly want to see democracy localised as much as possible, irresponsible behaviour like this makes you wonder to what extent local authorities can be trusted. These bodies set our speed limits, for example, and we have had all sorts of trouble trying to get consistency across the country.

That is already more oxygen than the issue deserves so we’ll leave it there. I mention it because there may be solutions out there that are music to the ears of rural publicans and could have a real role to play in tackling rural social isolation.

I’m very keen on the idea of self-driving cars. As a concept this has been around for a long time but it is genuinely getting quite exciting at the moment (for nerds and geeks at least ). Google has been working on a major project for driverless cars and persuaded the State of Nevada to issue a driverless car permit – a world first as far as I know – in March of last year.

While the idea has been around in one form or another since the 1930s it began to get serious attention in the 1980s. The EU provided a significant research fund for the idea in 1987 (the Prometheus Project ).

There were various approaches. In many cases people thought of automating the road, eg magnetic marker lines for vehicles to follow. There were also ‘convoy’ concepts whereby the lead vehicle is actually driving but the string of vehicles behind it are keeping station robotically.

What has changed, even in the last five years, is the quality of the technology. It is not new technology as such but it has become so efficient that a self-driving car is (relatively ) easy.

GPS units are now accurate to within a couple of metres on their own, and when enhanced by other technologies are even more precise. Collision-avoidance radar, laser tracking and video image recognition systems have all made amazing progress in the last few years. Think of an iPhone 5 compared with the first clunker you ever used to send a text. The change has been that profound.

Google has logged over 300,000 miles in driverless cars without accident. Well in fact they had two minor ones; once when the human driver had taken over and once when the unfortunate robot was rear-ended at a traffic light. But in reality, the robot’s safety record was perfect.

Irish drivers are already familiar with cars that can parallel park themselves. There is adaptive cruise control, parking assist and collision avoidance; all ways in which the car is getting smarter and smarter. Robotic driving is really not that huge a stretch from where we are now.

Enter rural Ireland. Can you think of a better concept or a place better suited to try it? You could emerge the far side of midnight from country pub, GAA club, golf club or wherever. Wobble your way to the car and get in, and simply tell it to go home, safe in the knowledge that the computer will keep her between the ditches.

In all seriousness this is the near future. Eejits like those mentioned above would be better served looking towards that future rather than dragging us towards the past.


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