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Several thousand years ago, we came up with the idea of using horses to increase our strength and speed. All that extra horsepower provided a tremendous advantage in hunting, warfare, tilling the land, and traveling. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the automobile took over the leading role of the horse as a means of transportation. And it did so very quickly because, in addition to being cheaper to use, a car soon produced about 20 kilos less manure per day than a horse. New York alone had 100,000 horses; you do the math… The automobile was a much-welcomed savior of the urban environment. Within just over a decade, the streetscape was dominated by cars instead of horses. That’s how fast a transition in mobility can happen.

My grandfather once told me how he, about a hundred years ago now, as a young farmer’s son, had to get up early every morning to take a horse and cart to look after the cows several miles away from the family farm. He noticed that at some point the horse knew the route. That way he could catch an extra half hour of sleep in the hay on the cart. That is truly a ‘level-4 autonomous system‘ avant-la-lettre.

Forward! Columns Maarten Steinbuch Carlo van de Weijer
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In research around autonomously driving cars, this phenomenon is called the ‘horse metaphor‘. A horse can, even if the rider is not paying attention, think along and independently move safely through a busy street and even choose a route. But if necessary, it will stop or give a signal to the rider, who can then decide what to do. But a horse will never run into a tree or into an abyss, even if you try as a rider.

Yet, that has never led to a horse-drawn carriage without a coachman. Which is also prohibited by law. The Vienna Convention, guiding international road traffic laws, states: “Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals.” If a horse runs away and into a china store, the rider cannot point to the horse farm or others for the damage. Just as a car driver cannot leave the responsibility to the car in the coming decades. The latter will first have to be much smarter than a horse, which is still much further away than many claim.

By the way, I think the horse itself is happy with the development of the past century. Life as a hobby or sport horse seems a lot more pleasant than as a pack or transport animal. And now the horse may also teach its successor – the car – how to drive sensibly and safely into the future, in close cooperation with humans.

Maarten Steinbuch and Carlo van de Weijer are alternately writing this weekly column, originally published (in Dutch) in FD. Did you like it? There’s more to enjoy: a book with a selection of these columns has just been published by 24U and distributed by Lecturis.