Rail 808: Driverless cars going nowhere soon

Suddenly the driverless car seems like becoming a reality in the very near future. Hardly a day passes without news of new developments. In the middle week of August, for example, we heard on successive days that Ford was promising to develop a car with no steering wheel or any user activated controls for the mass market  by 2020 and that , Uber, the world’s biggest taxi company, said that its passengers in Pittsburgh would be able to call up driverless cars next year.  And Helsinki announced that it will be introducing driverless buses next year.

So why am I writing about this in railway magazine.?Well, clearly if it were possible in the near future for driverless cars to become the norm, there would be a huge knock-on effect  on other forms of transport. Trains are in a way rather like driverless cars. Passengers cannot exert any control  over where they are going and simply have to sit back and enjoy  the ride. That is what the driveless car lobby is promising will soon be a reality for all of us.

If the driverless car revolution was really just round the corner, it would certainly raise issues about the continued massive investment in the railways. Except it isn’t.  I have followed the progress of the driverless car story for the past couple of years and my main conclusion is that there is more hype around it than for the England football team at major tournaments – and so far just as little achievement.

The Pittsburgh story is a typical example. Read the small print of the story and you find that actually the taxis will have not just one person in it, a test driver, but also ‘an observer’. Driverless it is not. The Helsinki project is a trial of two buses and is really an experiment to trial the concept. Take, too, the massive testing programme of Google in southern California where the internet giant is claiming that its driverless cars have run nearly 1.5m miles more safely than conventional cars. Except they haven’t .  Not only have they suffered a slightly above average accident rate, but on dozens of occasions the test driver – there always is one – has had to intervene to prevent an accident. On one occasion when the driver did not intervene, the car hit a bus and it was deemed to be at fault.

Edmund King, the President of the Automobile Association told me the other day that he had been at a conference of key players in the driverless car market and the consensus was that it will not be until 2030 that a fully driverless  – or more accurately ‘autonomous’ car – will be available on the market and even then it probably will still require a human to oversee its operation with the possible need to intervene. He made a further telling point: ‘The first thing to ask is if drivers want them. A Populus survey of 26,000 drivers. Found that 69 per cent say they are not ready to take their hands off the wheel because they enjoy driving.’

The danger of all this hype is that policy will start to be made around the notion that this ‘revolution’, as the protagonists like to call it, is happening and therefore people may start asking ‘why do we need all these trains?’ or even ‘Surely HS2 is unnecessary given we will all be steered automatically up the M1 in our own vehicles?’.

Apart from my usual desire to debunk hype, I was also struck by some similarities of the technological promises of the driveless car and of developments in the rail industry. Indeed, a key player, Elon Musk, features as being in the forefront of both autonomous car technology and radical new ideas for rail. Musk is the chief executive and the key ideas man of Tesla cars which produce electric cars with the eventual intent of making them driverless. Musk who is reckoned to be worth £10bn and is one of the main promoters of autonomous car technology, is not averse to a bit of hype. He suggested earlier this summer that ‘autonomous driving was a solved problem’ and that the cars would be available to the public in two years time. He presented no evidence of how this would happen and the more sceptical motoring journalists expressed bemusement at his confidence.

Unfortunately for Musk, within days of his statement, it emerged that an owner of one of his Tesla cars had swallowed too much of the hype, with fatal consequences. Teslas are fitted with a range of devices that take over control of the vehicle from the driver such as cruise control on motorways.  Joshua Brown, a very keen advocate of the automated features on the cars, was actually watching a Harry Potter film on his DVD screen while driving on a highway when his car ploughed into a lorry and killed him. Tesla later admitted that the strong sunlight on the white truck had made it invisible to the sensors controlling the car but tried blinding the media with statistics about how even despite the accident the car was still safer than conventional vehicles.

Musk is equally bullish about his rail project. In 2013, he announced plans for a ‘hyperloop’ connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, a kind of modern version of the atmospheric  railway  first developed in the 1840s on the London & Croydon Railway and beloved of Brunel used the concept on his South Devon Railway . These  were typical heroic Victorian failures but Musk is confident that using modern technology, it will be possible to send small trains down a tube at speeds of up to 700 mph, linking the two biggest Californian cities in 35 minutes. The project has gone quiet recently but my attention was drawn to the continued interest in this project by a press release from the Railway Consultancy (headed by one Nigel Harris, a namesake of my esteemed editor). The Consultancy has been looking at possible  routes where the technology might be appropriate, including ‘a possible link between Finland and Sweden, and one in the North of England’. In its newsletter, the Consultancy suggests that if a journey of 100 miles could be undertaken in a few minutes, urban planning would be radically changed as commuting from much greater distances would become feasible.

I don’t want to sound Luddite, but much of this strikes me as fanciful. Maglev, which is a similar technology, has been around for decades and has always been beset by cost, energy and safety concerns. The search for the silver bullet risks masking the need to simply make the best use of what we have. Network Rail’s emphasis on creating the digital railway undoubtedly meant it took the eye of the day job of keeping the network operating and undertaking enhancements cheaply and efficiently. Look, too, how policymakers of the 1960s effectively wrote the railways off, suggesting that motor vehicles could meet all our transport needs. Beeching was by no means the only one who made that mistake.

None of this is to say that technology is irrelevant or that we should stick our heads in the sand about its development. It is, though, to sound a warning that we must not be blinded by the prospect of the Holy Grail. It may never be found or if it is, it may cost too much.


New ministers, old problems


Political events have moved so fast recently that the old test for memory loss of asking ‘who is the Prime Minister?’ can no longer be used. So I have not had a chance to welcome Chris Grayling as transport secretary and his new team.  Grayling, in fact, does have some experience having been shadow transport secretary  in the mid 2000s when Alistair Darling was the man in charge.

Grayling flirted with a few ideas about an integrated railway and clearly had some criticisms of the existing system but then moved elsewhere but has had a somewhat chequered career with his low point being the banning of allowing prisoners to receive books from outside because of security concerns, a measure that was immediately overturned by Michael Gove, his successor.  Transport secretaries are always assessed by whether they are politicians on the way up or down, and Grayling must feel that being appointed to transport suggests it is the latter, after a variety of ministerial jobs reckoned to be higher up the hierarchy.

However, despite being rather absent in the summer when much was happening – the Southern dispute, the Anglia franchise allocation, fares rise announcement and so on – he has a good opportunity to make his mark. There is much to sort out and here is his starter for 10. Simon Calder, the esteemed and veteran travel write in my old parish, The Independent, wrote recently how he was travelling on the 17 30 from Euston to Glasgow on a summer Friday night and there were acres of empty seats. He had bought his first class ticket 12 weeks in advance but clearly there were not very many cheap seats available and therefore there was much what Darling used to call ‘fresh air’ being transported.

This situation is clearly ridiculous and has being going on for ages. Tackling it though will not be easy because of the rigidities of contractual arrangements and the legacy of past practice. But perhaps, just perhaps, Grayling may ask that with all that fresh air being transported, do we really need HS2 since he has shown himself in the past to be a bit of an iconoclast.



  • David McKenzie

    One of the biggest problems with driverless cars when they are introduced is they will share the same road space as “normal” cars, so they won’t do anything to cut congestion. Given what you say in the last paragraph, shouldn’t we use the proven technology and expand it to move in the direction we want; I’m particularly thinking of something similar to the Heathrow Pods (http://www.ultraglobalprt.com/wheres-it-used/heathrow-t5/) which run on a fully segregated route, but could potentially be expanded to run on standard roads as technology gets better whilst still utilising the dedicated network that has been built for it.

  • andrewbowden

    If I have to sit in a driverless car and pay attention to what it’s doing so that I can intervene if necessary, then what’s the point? Arguably my attention wouldn’t be as good as it should be, as inevitably my mind would wander as all it’s doing is passively watching. As least when you’re driving, you have your hands on the wheel and (are supposed to be) concentrating. No, I’d want a driverless car to do everything and do it safely without needing me to do anything.

    On motorways I really can’t see how they’re a good solution. A better one would be a managed motorway where every car is hooked up to the central system and that manages things properly. Cars can be “locked” to a centrally determined speed that copes with the demands of what’s present on the road – slower speeds if there’s more traffic. HGVs would only be allowed to overtake if it’s sensible – no more slowing down of all traffic because one lorry wants to go 2mph faster than the one in front of it. That’s a system I can see working, and working far better because every car would have knowledge of what the other one is doing.

    But either way, give me the train every day.

  • Paul Holt

    For those of us who remember the Apollo moon landings, CW’s caution (above) over fanciful speculation is echoed by the claims of the time about moon bases and Mars missions. In the 44 years since the crew of Apollo 17 walked the moon, man has not been back to the moon and has got no further than low earth orbit.

    More locally, the North Springfield railway station (http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2006/01/little-money-available-for-new-stations/) was due to be completed within five years – in 1985. In the intervening 31 years, it has got no closer. Indeed, it is now further away!