Driverless cars

The Oxford Times recently ran a story about a cyclist who became trapped under a car. A group of passers-by managed to lift the car off her before the paramedics arrived and are rightly praised in the article for their heroic actions.

The article relates how the woman was seen “underneath the car” and had “become trapped underneath a car”. But how did she get there? Is it one of those mysteries, like how wasps become trapped inside your house despite being given lots of open windows to fly out through? Did she crawl underneath the car looking for treasure and then get stuck?

After about 400 words, we get a clue in a quote from the ambulance service: “We got a call at 12.09pm to George Street and New Inn Hall Street to a road traffic collision involving a car and a pedestrian.” This isn’t entirely correct, because the woman trapped under the car was on a bike rather than on foot before she mysteriously became trapped underneath it, but it does give us some information: there was a collision and there was a car involved in that collision.

After nearly 500 words, towards the end of the article, we get another clue: the car was in reverse. But one word doesn’t appear at all in this article: driver. (Nor do any synonyms like “motorist”.)

The images and video tell us more than the article does about what must have happened: the car backed into the Java & Co coffee shop on New Inn Hall Street and smashed a window, either before, after or at the same time as it knocked this woman off her bike and then drove over her.

If a human had been driving this car, this would be a horrifying and criminal act: manoeuvring a tonne of metal on a busy street while being so unaware of your surroundings that you don’t even spot a building behind you, let alone smaller things like humans. Of course, it’s always possible that the Java & Co cafe makes a habit of “coming out of nowhere”, sneaking up in drivers’ blind spots and practically begging to have a window smashed. However, I’ve been enjoying their delicious pastries for many years now and I’m pretty sure the building doesn’t move around much. But the cafe’s behaviour is irrelevant here, because it’s clear from the article that the car had no driver.

We keep hearing about the advent of driverless cars, but in British journalism they’ve been around for years. Katja Leyendecker introduced me to the concept. In the tech world, driverless cars are an exciting new development (assuming you’ve never heard of public transport). In the world of journalism, driverless cars are a handy device for people whose actions have caused injury, damage or even death: they serve to transport the blame for those actions as far away as possible.