The myth of the driverless cars revolution

It seems that we are on the verge of a driverless car revolution. George Osborne recently announced that a “train” of automatic trucks controlled solely by the leading vehicle would be tested in Cumbria this year, one of eight driverless vehicle projects to receive £20m in funding from the government.

Trials of autonomous cars are already under way in Milton Keynes and Greenwich and far more extensive testing is being undertaken in the US. In recent testimony before Congress, Google claimed that its fleet of 56 autonomous cars had racked up 1.4 million miles over the past six years. The company predicts that autonomous vehicles will significantly reduce the 94 per cent of road accidents that are caused by human error each year and free up much of the 3,000 square miles devoted to parking across the United States.

The revolution, it is often claimed, is imminent. The Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, who wants to build trains with a top speed of 760 miles an hour in California and central Europe, said in December that his “fully autonomous” car would be ready to launch by 2018. All of this has created enormous hype, with the press suggesting that we will soon be able to sit in our cars – or “pods” – while being driven to work, where we will instruct the vehicle to park itself, or take the kids to school.

Yet even the most cursory examination of the present state of driverless car technology and the potential obstacles to its success – legal, social, economic, political and practical – suggests that a takeover of the mainstream transport system is about as likely as the long-awaited arrival of the futuristic jet packs of 1960s comic books.

Take the sensors, for instance. They may work fine in sunny California but could struggle to combat fog, snow and driving rain. Google’s autonomous cars have a somewhat patchy safety record: as of last month, they recorded fewer than 20 accidents, all minor (mostly rear-end shunts) and all, bar one, not the fault of the Google technology. This is slightly above the comparable rate for conventional cars and quite possibly the result of dangers – what if a mouse ran across the road? – that a human being would generally ignore.

However, it is the single incident caused by driverless technology, in a car that collided with a bus, that is most telling. According to Google’s accident report: “The Google AV [autonomous vehicle] test driver saw the bus approaching in the left-side mirror but believed the bus would stop or slow to allow the AV to continue.” This implies that the test drivers are still the ones making such decisions and that the cars are not “autonomous”. It raises a crucial problem for the new technology: risk.

Consider an autonomous vehicle trying to move into traffic, a manoeuvre that is impossible without some element of risk. Human beings often do it through some sort of interaction – say, flashing lights, or eye contact – and so an element of risk-taking would have to be introduced for autonomous vehicles, too. Once that happens, accidents will occur, and what parent would send his children off to school in a vehicle with risk hard-wired into its software?

The driverless car does not stand up to scrutiny. When pressed, Musk conceded that the “fully autonomous” car that he said would be ready by 2018 would not be completely automatic, nor would it go on general sale. There is a pattern. Whenever I ask people in the field what we can expect by a certain date, it never amounts to anything like a fully autonomous vehicle but rather a set of aids for drivers.

This is a crucial distinction. For this technology to be transformational, the cars have to be 100 per cent autonomous. It is worse than useless if the “driver” has to watch over the controls, ready to take over if an incident seems likely to occur. Such a future would be more dangerous than the present, as our driving skills will have diminished, leaving us less able to react. Google notes that it can take up to 17 seconds for a person to respond to alerts of a situation requiring him or her to assume control of the vehicle.

What is this technology for? The widespread assumption that driverless cars will be a shared resource, like the London Santander Cycles, is groundless. People like owning their personal vehicle because it is always available and can be customised to ensure that the child seat is properly in place and the radio tuned to Magic. Google may be right that a few parking lots will become redundant but it has no answer for the possibility that autonomy will encourage more vehicles on to the road.

The danger of all the hype is that politicians will assume that the driverless revolution obviates the need to search for solutions to more urgent problems, such as congestion and pollution. Why bother
to build infrastructure, such as new Tube lines or tram systems, or to push for road pricing, if we’ll all end up in autonomous pods? Google all but confesses that its autonomous cars are intended to be an alternative to public transport – the opposite of a rational solution to the problems that we face.

So why is George Osborne so interested in this technology? One possibility is that he considers it a way of weakening two of the last remaining bastions of union power: lorry and taxi drivers. Another is that he hopes it will provide a boost for the UK car manufacturing industry. Either way, the revolution, when it comes, will not be driverless.

Christian Wolmar’s new book, Are Trams Socialist?, will be released next month by the London Publishing Partnership

 

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