Driverless cars - friend or foe?

9th of November 2017
Driverless cars - friend or foe?

Self-driving cars are set to become a huge game-changer in our lives, and not only by silencing once and for all the incessant earbashing we receive from backseat drivers! But should we welcome or fear their arrival, asks Hartley Milner.

Wresting the steering wheel from the grasp of us fallible mortals will make the world a far safer place, so the argument goes. About 1.25 million people die as a result of traffic accidents each year and more than 90 per cent of these involve human error, according to the World Health Organisation.

In Europe, the death toll is 40,000 with 1.5 million people injured every year. Globally, road crashes cost national economies around three per cent of annual gross domestic product.

No more stressful white-knuckle driving experiences mean we will be able to use of our journey times more productively or for leisure pursuits, perhaps by catching up with office work, reading more, playing computer games, watching an in-cab movie or taking a power nap. One study claims cybercar technology will free up more than 250 million hours per year of consumer commuting time in the world’s most congested cities.

Congestion of our communities will be greatly reduced, we are told. Automated vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and the roadside infrastructure, allowing them to identify optimum routes and so spread demand for limited road space. This will also bring environmental benefits by reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The race to develop driverless vehicles got under way in the United States with Google, taxi-hailing firm Uber and electric car manufacturer Tesla taking an early lead in producing prototypes and testing them on public roads. Now these innovators are finding themselves up against giant carmakers such as Ford, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and BMW… all competing to have commercially viable autonomous vehicles rolling off the production line within the next decade or so.

The prize they are all chasing is a share of a revenue stream likely to be worth $800 bn a year by 2035, rising to $7 trillion 15 years later, according to a study commissioned by US technology corporation Intel. The passenger economy, as Intel is calling it, will see consumers and businesses turn away from vehicle ownership. Instead, we will take out vehicle leasing contracts or hire ‘mobility services’ as and when required directly from automakers. Manufacturers will gradually phase out vehicle sales altogether and become fleet operators.

Having been a little slow off the grid, European governments are fast getting up to speed part-funding research into the rapidly emerging technology in partnership with auto manufacturers.
The UK government has pledged more than €121 million in a bid to become a world leader in the development and testing of intelligent mobility solutions and low carbon projects.

Earlier this year a converted electric Nissan car, guided by radar, lasers and cameras, took to London’s roads in the Japanese manufacturer’s first European trials. A small self-driving truck spent 10 days this summer delivering food and snacks to customers of online supermarket Ocado in south-east London. The electric cargo pod is being developed by Oxford-based Oxbotica, which hopes to have it ready for commercial launch as early as 2019.

Road tests of autonomous buses and hailable taxis are also taking place. And in 2018 a controversial truck platooning pilot is due to get under way on Britain’s motorways with up to three lorries travelling in automated convoys controlled by a driver in the lead vehicle.

Last year the Netherlands organised a European Truck Platooning Challenge in which six convoys comprising two or three semi-automated ‘smart’ trucks completed the world’s first cross-border trial between cities. Similar tests have been carried out successfully in the US.

However, motoring organisation the AA has warned plans to trial platooning on Britain’s congested motorways with convoys longer than half a football pitch could pose a significant risk to motorists.
“We have some of the busiest motorways in Europe with many more exits and entries. Platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona or Nevada but this is not America,” said AA president Edmund King.

Accident waiting to happen?

“A platoon of just three HGVs can obscure road signs from drivers in the outside lanes and potentially make access to entries or exits difficult for other drivers. On new motorways, that do not have hard shoulders, lay-bys are every 1.5 miles. A driver in trouble may encounter difficulties trying to get into a lay-by if it is blocked by a platoon of trucks going past.”

And accidents have happened during driverless vehicle trials, despite rigorous regulation. The driver of a Tesla car operating in autopilot mode was killed in a collision with a truck in 2016. Also last year, a self-driving vehicle operated by Google was involved in a crash with a bus while attempting to navigate around an obstacle.

And earlier this year a self-driving car being trialled by Uber was in an accident with a vehicle that failed to give it right of way at an intersection. Investigations showed that human error was to blame for all but the Google incident, for which the tech company admitted “some responsibility”, citing a software failure.

A more long-term concern is the impact on jobs across the global transport industry. The Intel report – prepared by Strategy Analytics – acknowledges that jobs will be “dramatically reduced” as drivers are replaced in passenger vehicles and trucks. Other studies claim that as many as 300 million driver-related jobs may go worldwide over the next 20 years. In the US alone, there are nearly 3.5 million truckers, while the number employed in logistics globally is estimated at more than 8.7 million.

Impact on jobs

A huge number of supporting roles will also vanish, including traffic analysts, traffic controllers, driving instructors, vehicle licensing and registration officials, car sales people and car rental agents. Police forces around the world will be drastically reduced, as fewer officers will be needed to respond to road accidents and enforce traffic laws.

But the Intel report predicts a massive wave of job creation as existing businesses expand to seize opportunities within the driverless vehicle market and specialist mobility providers emerge offering new services across a plethora of industries such as hospitality, touring and leisure. Intel is even advancing the idea of ‘experience pods’ that not only carry passengers to their destination but also offer services like mobile beauty treatments and healthcare en route.

“It is easy to envisage an electric Uber delivering people and goods on a nearly around-the-clock-schedule as needed,” the report says. “It is also realistic to expect that trucks transporting goods between distribution centres and retail outlets will be able to run on an almost 24-hours a day, seven days a week schedule. These high-utilisation rates will spawn a very active secondary market for used pilotless vehicles as companies replace and refresh their fleets.”

Businesses operating in the passenger economy will need to spend a greater proportion of their revenue on IT support and technical solutions to ensure they stay competitive. Those that are slow to respond to the explosive change brought about by the new technology face failure or even extinction, the report warns.

“Companies must start thinking about their autonomous strategy now,” said Intel ceo Brian Krzanich. “Less than a decade ago, no one was talking about the potential of a soon-to-emerge app
or sharing economy because no one saw it coming.

“This is why we started the conversation around the passenger economy early, to wake people up to the opportunity streams that will emerge when cars become the most powerful mobile data generating devices we use and people swap driving for riding.”

However, surveys in the States show that the majority of people are jittery about the technology, not being wholly convinced it will be as safe as claimed.

Software reliability was a concern for Brits in a recent survey undertaken by motorists’ association the RAC. Of the 2,194 people questioned, 46 per cent gave software failure as their main concern, 27 per cent cited losing control over their vehicle as their biggest fear and for 10 per cent it was cyber attacks leading to remote theft or corruption of data. Only five per cent of motorists thought the UK government should be prioritising financial support for the development of driverless vehicle technology in the current economic climate.

However, around 31 per cent of respondents felt the biggest benefit of autonomous vehicles would come from making journeys safer by eradicating driver error. And 16 per cent thought there would be environmental benefits by reducing emissions and optimising fuel economy, as well as a reduction in stress and driver conflicts such as road rage.

“Very understandably, motorists have a range of questions and concerns about driverless cars. There is clearly some widespread scepticism about the technology becoming prevalent and some concerns over reliability which are no doubt based on motorists’ everyday experiences of computers and the lack of resilience of the software they use,” said RAC chief engineer David Bizley.


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