The issue is more relevant than ever because driverless cars will be on the UK’s roads by 2021, the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling declared earlier this week. Mr Grayling hailed the potential benefits for the elderly, disabled and general public and described the arrival of the autonomous era as “tremendously exciting.”
Self-propelling vehicles are not a new concept. Leonardo da Vinci envisioned a robotic cart in the 15th century, while inventor Francis Houdina drove a radio-controlled car through the streets of Manhattan in 1925. Now, Google, Tesla and Apple are the frontrunners in the race to develop truly autonomous vehicles, with traditional automakers Fiat, Ford, Audi, BMW and Volvo also joining the fray.
DRIVERLESS CARS: THE MAIN PLAYERS
While the driverless car industry has become synonymous with the likes of Google and Tesla, the field is rapidly expanding. Google began its self-driving car project back in 2009, and was the first company to put a fully driverless car on a public road in Austin, Texas back in October 2015. Tesla boss Elon Musk is confident that all future cars will be self-driving, and that steering wheels in vehicles will become a thing of the past. Apple has admitted it’s working on its own autonomous system under the codename Project Titan, though it’s unknown if it’s planning to make its own car or just the software. The traditional car industry has also been quick to embrace the sea change towards self-driving cars. Automakers Ford, BMW, Volvo, Fiat and Volkswagan are all also working on their own autonomous vehicles, in partnership with software firms including Intel, Mobileye, Bosch and Nvidia.
The development of driverless cars is one of the few technological areas the government is enthusiastically backing. The technology was granted a shout out in this year’s Queen’s Speech along with billions of pounds in investment.
The potential benefits are manifest, according to the evangelists. Self-driving electric vehicles could greatly reduce congestion, pollution, fuel consumption, road rage and, significantly, road deaths. There are, on average, 1,700 deaths or serious injuries on UK roads each year and human error is a factor in up to 94 per cent of accidents, studies have concluded. The adoption of electric autonomous vehicles could also save the lives of the 5,000 people who die each year from road pollution.
And new vehicles could also help save us money. The average car costs motorists around £3,400 each year in fuel, maintenance, insurance and road tax costs. An automated road network, granting the public access to on-demand driverless vehicles to get them from A to B could lower that cost to just £350 a year, a report from management consultancy firm Vendigital found.
The revolution is already well underway. Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced earlier this week it had become the first to drive fully-autonomous minivans on Arizona’s public roads without a human behind the wheel. “Fully self-driving cars are here,” John Krafcik, Waymo chief executive, told an assembled crowd at the annual Websummit tech conference.
However, there are still significant obstacles in the road, with a dubious public proving one of the hardest to navigate.
Around 44 per cent of UK adults supported the introduction of driverless cars, a survey from law firm Kennedys found. Three quarters of respondents to a recently-commissioned AAA survey in the US admitted they would be afraid to ride in a self-driving car. However, 59 per cent also said they wanted autonomous features in their next car. While there is plenty of interest in self-driving cars’ capabilities, there is clearly a reluctance to fully cede control to a computer.
The public seems divided over the issue of safety. While there is an acceptance that automated systems eradicate human error from driving, people are still generally mistrustful of a machine’s ability to react to unplanned events, such as a pedestrian stepping out in front of the car or accidents involving other vehicles.
The UK’s roads are also woefully under-prepared for the driverless revolution. Autonomous cars rely on 4G signals to communicate with one another, and coverage across much of the country is patchy, particularly along our motorways. New networks and infrastructure will need to be built.
The potential impact on jobs is staggering. Around 688,000 people work in car rental, maintenance, repair and cleaning, road construction and taxi and bus services across the UK, contributing approximately £72bn to the economy each year. Automation will inevitably create some new jobs, but many more are likely to be lost.Similarly, insurance and liability will pose a major headache in the autonomous future. The government has ruled that insurance laws must be adapted to cover injuries to all parties in accidents involving automated vehicles, Mr Grayling announced. The new framework would give victims “quick and easy access to compensation,” he added.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRIVERLESS CARS
Google’s Waymo project made history this week by testing its driverless cars on public roads with no one behind the wheel, but the history of autonomous vehicles stretches back centuries.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote detailed plans for a robotic cart capable of powering itself in the 1400s, and Norman Bel Geddes exhibited an early automated car at the 1938 World’s Fair exposition.
John McCarthy, a computing expert credited as one of the forefounders of artificial intelligence, wrote an essay entitled ‘Computer Controlled Cars’ in 1969, decades before Knight Rider’s David Hasselhoff cruised the streets of LA in talking AI-powered car KITT during the ’80s.
Advances in AI and tracking technology enabled a new wave of self-driving vehicles in the mid 2000s, spearheaded by Google but also encompassing ride-hailing app Uber’s plans for a driverless fleet of cars and Tesla’s incorporation of full self-driving hardware into all of its vehicles produced from October 2016 onwards.