There have been many reports in the media recently about the increasing use of computers in cars. In the USA there have been disturbing accounts of hackers gaining access to computers on the current generation of vehicles and taking over control of door and boot (trunk) locks and even stopping the engine. Car manufacturers have been accused by computer experts of not being aware of vulnerabilities in their systems. Yet the trend is to use more and more computers, even to the level of total control in driverless cars. This must pose a real risk of future hackers being able to cause traffic chaos, leading to multiple accidents, injuries and deaths.
Driverless cars are under test in England in two cities: Bristol and Milton Keynes. The concept of a city in which every vehicle is computer-controlled and completely free of accidents is attractive. Mobile telephones would no longer need to be banned and even seat belts might become unnecessary. All passengers would be free to read the newspaper, watch television or surf the web. However, computers in cars are already causing problems and it must be suspected that much innovation is now introduced because it has become technically possible rather than because it is needed or serves any useful purpose.
Cars were perfectly satisfactory before they had any computers. In Third World countries, wayside fitters were able to carry out on-the-spot repairs and keep the transport fleet operating nation-wide. Most mechanical parts could be repaired on-site and put back, but this is not possible with computer parts. With the current generation of cars, what the wayside fitter can do has been seriously reduced and computer problems must to be referred to specialist workshops in a few major cities. This results in serious delays and loss of grassroots workplaces.
Continuing effort is needed to reduce road accidents. Computer-control of vehicles could increase safely by keeping to speed limits, observing all traffic regulations and having perfect all-round awareness of other road users. Computers do not consume alcohol or narcotics, they don’t feel stress or get angry with other computers. The aim is to eliminate all human error. But interference from malicious hackers is human error on a scale that can nullify all the benefits, and we are told that no computer programme can be made entirely hacker-proof. The problem is not with the computers but with the people who use them and abuse them.
A case can still be made for the purely mechanical car and human driver, provided that s/he is well trained and imbued with patience. Perhaps the moral is that human beings cannot solve their problems by improving their intelligent machines but only by improving themselves.