When will we be a driverless world?

Roger Cruickshank | 19 Dec 2016 | Comments

A 12 year old boy recently asked me, if driverless cars are so safe, why aren’t we using them already? It’s a good question when there is so much media coverage about Google bubble cars crisscrossing town centres, and high performance saloons gliding around car parks… Yet the notion of us letting go of the wheel seems just too ‘unnatural’. Are we really happy to let big brother take over?

Only last week the headline ‘look no hands’ was pasted across a Dubai newspaper, confirming that a car had driven the 100 km journey itself between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.  Maybe the introduction of mainstream driverless cars isn’t too far off after all.  Dubai actually already has the longest Connected and Autonomous vehicle (CAV), in the form of its Metro, which has been running with ‘no hands’ since 2009.  And those in the taxi business might say that the ability to order and direct a vehicle  is a proxy CAV; the International Road Transport Union (IRU)  recently revealed that their UpTop scheme (bringing global taxi apps onto one platform) has attracted more than double the number of vehicles using Uber.

The notion of driverless is not new: besides several metros around the world, driverless lifts and elevators have been around for decades, as has the autopilot button that gets pressed when we fly across the globe. We’ve in fact been using driverless transport for years with a strong safety record. 

But CAVs (and their offshoots) are likely to have a greater impact than the first jet airliners of the early 1960s.  At Atkins, a design, engineering and project management consultancy, we consider that this new means of travel and the data generated by its introduction, will touch every part of the built environment - a real eye opener.  We are ourselves leading the UK development of an independent test site for, and a market leading capability in, autonomous vehicles, investigating the legal and insurance aspects of driverless cars and exploring how the public react to such vehicles. The programme will help to deepen our understanding of the impact on road users and wider society and open up new opportunities for our economy and society.

We also have teams of people around the world looking into connecting people, places and services and reimagining infrastructure across all transport modes, enabled by data, technology and innovative ideas. Intelligent mobility (iM) looks into new ways of travelling that will transform people's journeys and the movement of goods, with efficiency, sustainability and safety of our transport systems and cities worldwide paramount.

In America, our colleagues are seeing some real challenges around the need for a consistent approach to CAV introduction.  At the moment US Federal law is somewhat ambivalent on CAV roll out, principles have been set at a national level – make it safe, protect data -  yet it is leaving individual states to figure out the real details with regards to the planning, design and the implementation of CAVs into urban transport systems.  Such detail will vary from state to state, possibly confusing motorists, manufacturers and operators alike.  However it is exciting to know that most states are reviewing their existing transport infrastructure inventories, with a view embracing the change and the hope of controlling and reprioritising infrastructure spend in parallel. This in part of course is due to the Governance system that prevails in the US.  The UK’s more inclusive approach on CAVs is an exemplar, bringing public and private entities feeding off a wealth of ideas through a broad institutional framework.

What about the all that extra free time we will now have inside the car, as we will be relieved from manhandling the steering wheel?   It is possible that people might starting literally living in their cars, the impacts of which could be far ranging for city planning both in terms of land development/housing stock as well as the services required to manage these nomadic drivers  - (could this really happen?)  This just highlights that it isn’t only the technology but a major social change that is likely to take place.  So I offer are we ‘giving up control’ and are we also giving up on the community as we sit in our individual pods with internet and all else on tap?

For me personally, I can’t wait to be motoring down a fogbound expressway, knowing that we are all travelling at the same safe speed, and arriving at work much less agitated having had extra time to prepare for that critical meeting: the one proviso being that there is sufficient resilience/security in the system to indeed ensure that traffic is controlled effectively and safely. 


This article first appeared on IoT Tech News.

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