Interest is growing across the government and media in the powerful potential of autonomous vehicle technology. Ed Brown looks at how the race to develop driverless cars is developing, and how they could transform the places and space we inhabit.
Excitement is growing at the prospect of driverless cars becoming a reality. In the past two weeks, the government has held the second reading of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill in Parliament, and as a sign of its real intent, awarded £51 million for 4 projects in the West Midlands to create the necessary conditions to test connected and autonomous vehicle technology within two years.
More broadly the idea is gaining momentum, and earlier this month, a government-commissioned independent review into growing the artificial intelligence industry suggested that driverless cars could be worth £28bn to the UK economy by 2035.
Why’s it important?
Driverless cars have the potential to entirely transform the places and space we inhabit and the way that we travel. Currently, 94% of car accidents are caused by human error, and a recent KPMG report predicted that technological developments will prevent 25,000 serious crashes in the UK by 2030. Other obvious potential benefits include reduced environmental costs, more efficient use of roads and transportation of goods, and new solutions to social issues such as facilitating travel for the elderly or disabled.
What’s the reaction been?
The story is certainly piquing the interest of commentators with the likes of Hugo Rifkind at The Times, and John Harris at the Guardian both predicting a significant decline in the ownership of cars, autonomous or otherwise. Others have focused on the various likely issues and implications, from legalising drink driving to developing a moral highway code.
Interest in the technology has extended to the financial markets, with the value of FTSE 100 insurance company Admiral falling in recent days as investors fear the impact of driverless cars.
“Soon we’ll laugh at the idea of owning a car” – The Times
Experts are predicting that fully autonomous vehicles will be in use by the mid-2020s, but there is much to get right before then. Key challenges include adequately proofing against cyber risks including hacking, and infrastructure issues and costs around designing smart roads and cities. On the latter point, recent research found that something as simple as stickers or graffiti on a road sign could cause it to be misread by an autonomous vehicle.
Perhaps the biggest challenge though will be building trust, and overcoming an understandable public skepticism in driverless cars. The big PR challenge for both automation companies and the government will be convincing people that autonomous vehicles are safer to use and safer to have around than driving oneself.
Equally important will be getting the regulatory landscape right. The Government’s new Automated and Electric Vehicle Bill will aim to tackle significant challenges such as extending insurance policy to cover cars and not just the drivers.
However, further debate will be required around a tranche of issues including ethical and moral questions over how autonomous vehicles prioritise their occupant’s safety vis-à-vis other vehicles or pedestrians. A recent research paper even suggested a dial ranging from altruistic to full egoist mode for drivers to set themselves. The challenge will be to find the right regulatory balance, clarifying these issues without inhibiting technological innovation.
Legislative and ethical challenges aside, the real current battleground is between the impressive list of competitors in the autonomous vehicles market. Household names like General Motors, Uber and Tesla, are currently battling with creative start-ups to determine what the future of transport will look like. Taking a lead in this crowded market in the UK will require innovative thinking about how we seek to use cars in the future, both in rural and city settings. It will also require proactive engagement with policymakers and the public as we move towards vehicle automation to set the agenda on issues before they fully arise. However, no one product is likely to work for all geographies and needs, and there will be space for a range of services. One to keep an eye out for will be UK challenger FiveAI, who are seeking to harness their autonomous technology to create an innovative self-driving service stack, with products aimed at challenging the likes of Uber in London, and cutting congestion and freeing up parking spaces.
There will no doubt be many bumps along the way, but what is clear is that over the next decade our roads are set to dramatically change.