Whether by pod or autobahn, driverless cars are coming

There was once a prediction in 1894 that the sheer number of horses on London’s streets would lead to every street in the city being “buried under nine feet of manure” by the 1940s. Luckily, the arrival of mass transit and the automobile ensured that Cockneys didn’t end up knee deep in anything unmentionable. Today, we could be about to see the start of a similar kind of transformation.

Depending on which analysts you prefer, adoption of fully autonomous vehicles by 2040 will reach between 30% and 70%.  But at the Driverless Technology Conference 2015 in London, there was no doubt that it will happen.

Tesla founder Elon Musk recently suggested that actually driving cars may one day be illegal, an idea many agree with; Paul Copping, Greenwich’s smart city advisor warned that the “consequences of human error will become unacceptable” and predicted that within cities some public roads may end up being closed to private traffic.

The technology is well on its way, and with the billions that Google, Apple, Tesla, plus the incumbent car manufactures are ploughing in, it’s just a matter of time. But before it takes to the streets, there’s still issues around safety, road and city infrastructure, business models, and public perception.

New visions for the future

The future of driverless cars is still unclear, but early battle lines are being drawn. On the one side; organisations such as Google and Lutz Pathfinder from the UK foresee urban areas dominated by self-driving pods in a shared ownership model. On the other; the traditional car OEMs are testing fairly normal-looking AI cars on the autobahn and foresee a more traditional ownership model. There’s plenty of countries looking to be the hotbed of these new technologies in whatever form it takes.

“We are headed to a world that is better and safer due to driverless cars,” said Lukas Neckermann, conference host, transportation advisor and author of The Mobility Revolution. Despite not being a native Brit, he said he was “Very proud the UK has a clear leadership position on autonomous technology.”

The UK government has invested upwards of $30 million in research. Tests in Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Bristol, and Coventry are all due to start in the coming months. And these will be exploring the technology, as well as the impact these vehicles will have on the people and places around them.

“The UK is the best place in the world to test; our legal framework will allow autonomous vehicle testing on any roads,” said Iain Forbes, Head of the Department for Transport’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. “If the UK doesn’t take this opportunity, then other countries will.” Aside from the very obvious testing from Google in California and Texas, Volvo is testing in Gothenburg, with other projects being run in Japan just outside Tokyo, in the Netherlands and Finland, and of course Germany.

Accidents will happen

While driverless crashes or injuries are yet to happen – aside from a few minor fender benders caused by human error – it’s widely accepted that it will happen at some point and that simply has to be accepted by the industry, especially in this early testing phase.

“Concept car testing used to be done in the dark with camouflage,” said Neil Fulton, Programme Director as Catapault, one of the organisations behind the tests in Milton Keynes. “Today’s trials are out in the open, and we have to accept there is risk.”

Steven Hamilton, partner at the Mills and Reeve law firm, explains that for now the liability is still with the driver in these vehicles, although some companies will take on liability if there is an accident during “AI mode”. Notably Tesla, the company which has pushed this technology out to the public, isn’t one of them.

Aside from the fact most people are still unwilling to pay extra for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) features – including automatic parking/braking or lane assistance - currently on the market, Chris Webber at Strategy Analytics feels winning the trust of consumers will be the hardest part of driving adoption. He suggested that waiting for the public to come around to the idea on its own is risky in a busy field, and instead suggested existing systems should be pushed on to consumers now in order to prep them for the future.

Neckermann, however, believes that many of the statistics about people not trusting cars that drive themselves are “just noise” because we already live in a world with automated trains (London’s DLR) and planes. “If you ask pilots of a 777 how many minutes they actually fly the plane, it’s seven minutes. Yet they cause 60% of accidents,” he concludes.


See our coverage of connected cars at the SMMT Connected conference earlier this year. 



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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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