Driverless cars go easy on the accelerator

“I am never getting into one of those things!” My mother, never an early adopter, plans to be a never-adopter of a technology that I personally am very much looking forward to. If there were such a thing as a pre-early adopter on this, that would be me. But it is a concept that not only divides families, but society as a whole, with technologists, corporatists, entrepreneurs, law-makers and sociologists all weighing in. There’s a lot going on in the field of driverless cars.

Far from being just science fiction, most of the big tech companies and auto makers have invested small fortunes in developing this technology which is already tootling around on public streets. Google has been working on driverless cars for over 15 years. They unveiled a steering wheel-free prototype at the end of 2014 which began testing on public roads in San Francisco in early 2015, and they plan to make them available to the public by 2020. That’s only five years away.


Mercedez Benz self-driving car prototype

It was confirmed last week that Apple are trying to catch up, scouting out testing sites near their headquarters in California and hiring auto-industry executives and researchers. Earlier this year Mercedes Benz unveiled its futuristic model (pictured above) and Audi embarked on a cross-US test drive of its first driverless car across the US, which it expects to be able to release to the public in two years. Tesla cars will start self-driving this year through a software update and appear on track to have fully autonomous vehicles in a few years. BMW has teamed up with Chinese tech giant Baidu to develop a self-driving car which they plan to release by the end of 2015. Nissan plans to launch autonomous vehicles by 2020, and will introduce self-driving on highways in some of its models next year. Honda has begun testing, and Volvo plan to start testing self-driving cars with real customers in 2017. The list of participants and investors is long.

Are governments allowing this, given the risks? In many states and countries around the world, yes. Some are not only allowing it, but actively investing in the concept. UK Driverless cars are being tested this year in the UK towns of Milton Keynes, Bristol, Greenwich and Coventry, funded by the government which is investing over £19m directly in the technology, with a further £100m in grants pledged to match private investment.

A driverless car in Milton Keynes, UK

A driverless car in Milton Keynes, UK

In the US California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida have passed bills allowing public testing, and in Europe so have Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. The European Commission has selected five cities (in Belgium, Italy and France) to be used as guinea pigs.

And it turns out that the risk is pretty low. Google, the farthest along in testing by far, has acknowledged that their driverless cars have been involved in 15 minor accidents, caused by being rear-ended or side-swiped by human-driven vehicles, or by human error while in manual mode. That’s in spite of having driven almost 2 million kilometres in autonomous mode.

These are the kinds of crashes that usually don’t even get reported.  In the US alone, over 30,000 people a year die in car crashes. Driverless cars will bring that figure way, way down. Computers don’t get drunk or text while driving. And sensors will be able to detect hidden dangers, such as another car speeding up at the perpendicular intersection just the other side of the hedge, or the cyclist coming up in our blind spot on the right.

One of the Google driverless car prototypes

One of the Google driverless car prototypes

Apart from saving lives, driverless cars could usher in significant cost savings. According to a 2010 US government study, crashes cost the economy about $242 billion per year in medical bills, lost productivity, legal bills, insurance administration, property damage and congestion. Crashes in which police indicate that at least one driver was exceeding the legal speed limit cost $52 billion. Crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted cost $40 billion. And on a daily, individual level, fewer accidents means lower insurance premiums.

The environmental impact sounds impressive. The cars are electric, so fewer emissions. With controlled and orderly traffic, there would be less din, no honking horns or motor rumblings. Fewer swear words shouted in frustration.

(what busy intersections could look like with autonomous cars)

And the freed-up resources: on average, cars spend 95% of their time parked. Inactive. Taking up space, doing nothing. Self-driving cars can be put to work, driving other people around, running errands, making deliveries, whatever. Load-based management, sub-renting or time-sharing could reduce costs and optimize use. Space previously occupied by parked cars could be taken over by street cafés, trees, benches, or space to walk. (Unless, of course, we need the extra space for the extra convenience-induced traffic.) And really, will anyone miss parking tickets?

Stressful, hour-long commutes will be a thing of the past. No more time wasted looking for city parking spaces. True, driverless cars will go slower, so the A to B time will probably be longer. But it’s time that can be spent legally texting, reading, watching videos. And, computer-driven cars would know where other cars are, and automatically take the least congested route to the destination.

Furthermore, we won’t need a license to ride in one. That makes them ideal for transporting kids and the elderly. I would love to be able to put my daughter in a driverless car to send her off to school in the morning. And of course she would use the time to study, rather than watch YouTube.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that she’ll be well done with school by the time this becomes a reality. If ever. Governments allowing testing and encouraging research is not the same as allowing consumer use, and there are significant legal obstacles to overcome before we can cruise one out of the dealership. Law makers have their work cut out for them in terms of defining responsibility in case of incident. Is it the passenger’s fault? Or is it the software? Or the car maker? Or maybe the city and their inaccurate sensors or illegible signs?

Updating legacy infrastructure will be a significant hurdle. Cities will have to invest a small fortune in new signage, sensors and traffic flows. Will traffic lights still be necessary? What will happen to pedestrian crossings? Even the testing has a long way to go still. How would driverless cars fare in a snowstorm?

The potential loss of insurance premiums will galvanize a powerful lobby. The economic and social cost of millions of taxi, truck and bus drivers, and driving academy employees out of work is frightening. The ripple effects on other areas of social activity – shopping (more convenient deliveries will reduce the need for supermarkets), work (the incentive to stagger commutes for traffic’s sake would be another tick in favour of working from home), family (if our kids don’t depend on us to ferry them around, what will that do to the family connection?) – will be huge but difficult to quantify.

And driver resistance is a powerful barrier. My mother is not the only one to unreasonably view the idea of electric “people movers” with fear. Behind the wheel, we feel in control. It’s a psychological thing. We develop an emotional bond with our car. We’ve been through some stuff together, that brings us closer. Giving up the sense of freedom and autonomy that owning a car bestows is going to be tough for many, impossible for some. Unfortunately, the idea of cleaner air and more parks will probably not be enough to sell it. And government-mandated change brings political risks that few politicians will be willing to take on. Heavy subsidies will help, but combined with the cost of street and highway adaptation, will be difficult to finance, both economically and politically. The cost savings and environmental impact mentioned earlier will take years to become obvious. And governments, by electoral necessity, tend to think short-term.

And yet technology marches on, and works its way into our lives in such a way that we go from thinking “I don’t need one” to “What did I ever do without it?” without us even noticing. Think PCs, smartphones, online banking. Our cities will be able to cope with a combination of autonomous cars and the complicated, loud human-controlled models. Soon these will seem old-fashioned, and social pressure and the evolution of taste and priorities will swing in favour of driverless models, especially for city driving. Autonomous cars will become a status symbol, just as electric cars are becoming today. High-end cars already have strong autonomous functions, such as automatic parking, lane detection, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking if the car in front slows down…

Car driving will not disappear, just as horse riding hasn’t. It will become an activity practised for fun rather than necessity, with clubs and courses and communities of like-minded enthusiasts. And for those who long for the thrill of dashing down obstacle-ridden city streets, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous virtual reality headsets will deliver an adrenalin-pumping version of Grand Theft Auto or similar.

grand theft auto

So, it will happen. But slowly, as it should. Mobility is an integral part of what it means to be human, and freedom of choice is core to our understanding of democracy. Yet we are capable of profound cultural change. Mass adoption of driverless cars will take time to become an acceptable concept, in spite of the obvious advantages. Yet we are already seeing signs of the necessary mind-shift in the growth of the Sharing Economy, in which access trumps ownership in terms of efficiency. It’s slow, but it’s happening. By the time the next generation takes the wheel, so to speak, choosing a hands-on car will seem like a radical, frivolous decision. While we will always be territorial animals, our collective drive (ok, I’ll stop) will lean more towards quality of life for our family and community, than for our own personal gratification. Connected cars will help us to become more civic-minded, more patient and more interested in things other than status and speed. It will take a generation, at least. Such profound cultural change needs to introduced slowly and encouraged carefully. But we will get there.



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