The myth of driverless cars

 

We may have a lot of unfilled potholes and cutbacks in funding for buses, but there always seems to be money available for research projects on autonomous vehicles.

This latest tranche of £22m of grants brings the total up to £120m for 73 schemes. Barely a day passes without predictions that these vehicles are the future and will soon be dominating the road environment.

”Local
 

Indeed, money for transport research and development is being almost entirely focused on connected and autonomous vehicles. One researcher, who did not dare to be named, told me: ‘You only have to mention the word “autonomous” in a research bid, and the money comes through.’

This is already distorting the market and is set to get worse as politicians jump on to this bandwagon, as illustrated by chancellor Philip Hammond stating last year that driverless cars will be on UK roads by 2021.

Yet, there has been no proper debate about the desirability or feasibility of these vehicles, let alone a thorough analysis of their technical capability. These vehicles are being developed by a combination of auto manufacturers and tech companies, like Google, whose subsidiary Waymo is the biggest player. As with many high tech inventions, there is no public demand for these products and consequently these companies are using the media to make outlandish claims about their desirability and imminent arrival, which do not stand up to scrutiny.

Initially, the companies producing these vehicles envisaged that they would be a natural extension of existing ones. This proved to be a mistake because testing showed that reducing drivers to mere occasional oversight meant that they were not sufficiently alert when they needed to intervene. Since one of the key selling points of this concept is increased safety, the developers have been forced to go straight to Level 4 capability (out of six levels from 0 to 5), at which point cars are able to drive themselves in all situations with no human intervention.

Technically, so far this has proved insuperable. Despite all the hype surrounding trials, these have been limited to relatively simple situations in specific geographic areas and good weather conditions.

Moreover, there has nearly always been an operator ready to take over in dangerous situations where the auto pilot has failed for instance and the occupants or other road users were put at risk.

In order to convince the public of the benefits of autonomy, the developers have suggested that the cars would be electric pods that would be shared rather than individually owned. They have put forward this model to highlight the considerable savings from the fact that people would not need to buy their vehicles, and that parking provision would no longer be necessary either at home or in workplaces. Waymo and Uber, in particular, have been pushing this model.

However, it is fundamentally flawed. While people in urban areas might have instant access to one of these pods, it would not be economically or practically feasible to provide them on demand in rural or sparsely populated suburban areas. Moreover, people have specific types of cars to accommodate their requirements, whether they be keeping their golf clubs in the boot, having seats for children or space for tools, or simply having a small car in order to reduce fuel consumption. The idea that standardised pods fulfil all requirements is fanciful.

Then there are issues about the capability of these vehicles: how would they distinguish between a traffic jam and a row of parked cars? What would happen when two pods met each other on a single carriageway road and the occupants were not able to reverse them? Would legislation against ‘jaywalking’ be necessary as the vehicles would have to stop if someone with evil intent – or simply in a hurry – stepped in front of the vehicle? And as for Uber, which currently relies on owner-drivers, can the company really afford to buy all these driverless cars since there will be no drivers to own them? I asked an Uber executive this question recently, and he responded that he expected the car manufacturers to provide the vehicles for free on the basis that they would then earn an income from the taxi trips. I responded that this seemed an unlikely scenario, to say the least.

”Local

The list of practical questions is almost endless, and so are issues relating to the regulatory, legal, insurance and software security considerations. The more that one analyses this phenomenon, the less realistic it appears.

The whole concept seems to be borne of the needs of the tech companies to find some use for their monopoly profits with the support of the auto manufacturers who are terrified of being left behind by their rivals.

Unfortunately, as ever with the tech companies, they present this development as benign – it will improve safety and relieve people of the burden of driving – when, in fact, the only motive seems to be creating a product to ensure their continued profitability. After all, self-driving cars will allow people to spend more time using Google products.

One could argue that a few million pounds of government money wasted on gadgetry is trivial but, in fact, there are numerous damaging effects. Firstly, researchers in other fields of transport, such as improving information systems or making buses more fuel efficient are aghast that the limited funds available for government support of research and development are being wasted on these boys’ toys.

Secondly, the hype which these grants help to stimulate encourages the view that autonomous vehicles will soon appear on the roads and therefore allows their supporters to argue that spending on alternatives, such as improved public transport, is a waste. 

Thirdly, these grants appear to go against the grain of the free market ideology so favoured by the current government. If this technology genuinely represents a possible future for the transport system, then it is up to the free market to stimulate it. Clearly, however, there is no business model and it is unlikely one will emerge. None of the cars so far on trial have been priced as they are not yet on the market but it unlikely that any would cost less than a six figure sum. Even mass production might not make them affordable. The sensors and other equipment they require are incredibly expensive.

The immensity of the task of creating vehicles capable of self-driving in all weathers, on all types of roads (and even down the off-road lane to the golf club), and in situations with large numbers of pedestrians may mean that these vehicles will never be able to be used in the way their protagonists suggest. Some tech, indeed, seems to be going backwards. A friend who just bought a Range Rover says that its ‘self-parking’ facility previously fitted as standard has been removed from new models because it never did work satisfactorily.

True driverless cars may, therefore, not be feasible and therefore the advantages, such as freeing up central city parking, reducing road casualties and allowing non-drivers such as the children, the infirm and the blind to have access to cars, will never be delivered. Politicians must take note and not be conned by the hype. They must not allow transport policy to be determined by wishful thinking by the tech companies and their allies in the automobile industry.

Signed copies of Christian Wolmar’s book, Driverless cars: on a road to nowhere are available for £10 post free from the author Christian.wolmar@gmail.com or just go to Amazon.

 

Also see

Register now for full access


Register just once to get unrestricted, real-time coverage of the issues and challenges facing UK transport and highways engineers.

Full website content includes the latest news, exclusive commentary from leading industry figures and detailed topical analysis of the highways, transportation, environment and place-shaping sectors. Use the link below to register your details for full, free access.

Already a registered? Login

 
comments powered by Disqus
 
 
highways jobs

Project Engineer (Permanent)

Havant Borough Council
£37,100
We’re looking for an experienced and enthusiastic engineer to join our well-regarded design and implementation team. Havant, Hampshire
Recuriter: Havant Borough Council

Project Engineer (Fixed Term)

Havant Borough Council
£37,100
We’re looking for an experienced and enthusiastic engineer to join our well-regarded design and implementation team. Havant, Hampshire
Recuriter: Havant Borough Council

Contract Supervisor

London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth
£31,013 - £36,486 depending on skills, knowledge and experience
The role of Contract Supervisor (Waste and Street Cleansing) will require you to support ambitious plans to provide services for residents Richmond upon Thames, London (Greater)
Recuriter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Flood Risk Manager

Birmingham City Council
£43,662 - £54,574
The role requires the post holder to be the lead professional for the Authority’s Flood Risk Management and drainage function Birmingham, West Midlands
Recuriter: Birmingham City Council

Head of Highways & Transport

Lewisham London Borough Council
up to £72,705
As our lead expert on highways and transport, you will set the direction and lead on all transport related matters Lewisham, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Lewisham London Borough Council

Ugobus Driver (multiple positions)

Essex County Council
Up to £18938.0 per annum
Please note that we have permanent, fixed term and relief contract opportunities on a part time, job share and flexible working basis. The salary is u England, Essex, Chelmsford
Recuriter: Essex County Council

Assistant Director

Hounslow London Borough Council
Up to £82k
Working across a wide range of high profile direct services, the emphasis for this role is on partnership working. Hounslow (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recuriter: Hounslow London Borough Council

Head of Parks and Environmental Services

Harrogate Borough Council
£58,778 - £61,882
You will have experience at a senior level in the management and delivery of front line services relevant to the functions Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Recuriter: Harrogate Borough Council

Programme Technician/Engineer

Norfolk County Council
£29,636 - £31,371 per annum
This is a challenging position which involves working across wide ranging activities. Norwich, Norfolk
Recuriter: Norfolk County Council

Principal Transport Planner – 2 posts (Warrington Waterfront Western Link)

Warrington Borough Council
£40,760 - £43,662 plus essential car user allowance
We are looking to form a new Warrington Waterfront Western Link Team and we are looking to fill a number of key posts Warrington, Cheshire
Recuriter: Warrington Borough Council

Director of Integrated Transport

Liverpool City Region
Salary up to £124,848
The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority is embarking on a search for an exceptional individual with the passion to deliver on our vision Liverpool, Merseyside
Recuriter: Liverpool City Region

Highways Manager

Oxford Direct Services
G11
Oxford Direct Services
Recuriter: Oxford Direct Services

Data Entry Administrator

Telford & Wrekin Council
£18,795 - £19,171
Telford & Wrekin’s Public Protection Service is looking for an enthusiastic and self-motivated Data Entry Administrator Telford, Shropshire
Recuriter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Transport Planner

Camden London Borough Council
£33,122 to £38,423
You’ll have previous experience of working in a transport/planning/accessible transport environment Camden, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Camden London Borough Council

Parking Business Administrator Level 3 Apprenticeship

Brent Council
£15,000 p.a. inc.
This role will support the Brent Parking Team work to provide administrative support for both the Notice Processing Team Brentford (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recuriter: Brent Council

Principal Engineer (Development)

Liverpool City Council
£37,849 - £42,683
Liverpool City Council wish to recruit a Principal Engineer (Development) to provide managerial and technical support. Liverpool, Merseyside
Recuriter: Liverpool City Council

Traffic Manager

Lincolnshire County Council
£55,503 - £60,578
We are looking to recruit a Traffic Manager to join our Highways team Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Recuriter: Lincolnshire County Council

Team Leader x2 - Passenger Transport

Redbridge London Borough Council
£27,228 - £28,215 per annum
You will be responsible for overseeing the duties of Passenger Transport drivers as well as providing support to the service and managers. Redbridge, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Redbridge London Borough Council

UTMC Engineer

Warrington Borough Council
£31,371 - £34,788
You will support the UTMC Principal Engineer and work as part of a team responsible for all aspects of Urban Traffic Management and Control Warrington, Cheshire
Recuriter: Warrington Borough Council

Programme Assurance Manager Public Realm

Westminster City Council
£46,293 - £49,203 per annum
A graduate, or have equivalent experience, and you can show evidence of continued professional, managerial and personal development... City of Westminster, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Westminster City Council