Self Driving Cars And Boaty McBoatface: A Free Exhibition On Driverless Vehicles At Science Museum

Driverless, Science Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 13 months ago

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Self Driving Cars And Boaty McBoatface: A Free Exhibition On Driverless Vehicles At Science Museum Driverless, Science Museum 4
Copyright Science Museum

You're driving a car and the brakes have failed. Do you hit and kill an old person, or a child? Does it make a difference if they are homeless, or if one of them is crossing on a red man?

This is a sample of the difficult moral dilemmas put to me in an interactive experiment at Science Museum's new display on driverless vehicles. It may sound purely hypothetical but it's these decisions that future driverless cars may have to make. I'm hoping those vehicles will have a better sense of morality than us humans, as the experiment has shown that people are more likely to spare an athletically built person over a large one. In case you're wondering, it's pushchairs we're most likely to spare — presumably only ones that have a child in them.

A very cute stained glass car. Copyright Science Museum.

The most eye catching pieces in the display are vehicles such as the Robocar, a super sleek car designed to drive itself to victory in race conditions. It's one sexy looking vehicle, and not having to accommodate a driver means it can be more streamlined than usual cars. Less practical and more playful is Dominic Wilcox's stained glass car with a bed inside. It's very cute, and is making the point that if we all go driverless then road safety increases to the point where we can pootle along in car made of glass.

In the water, the risk of collision is lower, so many leading autonomous vehicles are already working here. These include the submarine Boaty McBoatface, which can operate independently for months at a time in the deep ocean before returning home. Many of you will remember Boaty McBoatface was the top voted entry for the naming of an Arctic research vessel. They went with the 'David Attenborough' in the end, but fair play to them for giving the less salubrious name to the submarine.

Boaty McBoatface is back, or at least a scale model of it is. Copyright Science Museum.

This may be a relatively small display but it's packed full of major breakthroughs including airborne drones that can detonate landmines, and ones which can fly defibrillators to the scene of an emergency. Sure, most of the flying drones will probably end up working for Amazon and Deliveroo, but it's heartening to see there are more noble plans afoot as well.

I'm a big proponent of driverless cars and their capability to vastly improve road safety, but you don't have to take my word for it as there's a series of vox pops from those who have been driven round in driverless pods in London, remarking how comfortable they felt in them.  

The scores have come through when it comes to whose life I should spare, and I'm more likely to save more lives and uphold the law than the average person. Let's hope the driverless cars bear that in mind when deciding whether they should spare my life or someone else's.

Driverless: Who is in control? is on at Science Museum until 5 January 2021. It's free to visit and is on the ground floor, at the back of the museum.  

Last Updated 14 July 2020