Driverless dreams

post Christian Wolmar

Hardly a day passes without an announcement about the imminent advent of driverless cars. We are being bombarded with predictions that soon the roads will be full of self-driving pods, leaving their occupants to read a newspaper or, more likely, play with their devices while being taken to their destination.

The government has certainly contributed to this hype. In late February the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced 22m of grants to a variety of autonomous vehicle projects, which brings the total up to 120m for 73 different schemes. Legislation to allow Connected and Autonomous Vehicles to use public roads and to create a framework for insuring them is currently in parliament.

Yet there has been no proper debate about the desirability or feasibility of these vehicles, let alone a proper 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. Certainly, their development is not a response to any market stimulus since surveys have shown that most drivers are perfectly happy to continue being in control of their vehicles.

Initially, the companies producing autonomous vehicles thought that they were simply a natural extension of existing ones. But testing has shown that reducing the role of drivers to one of mere oversight means that they are not sufficiently alert when they do need 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 zero to five), at which point cars are able to drive themselves in all situations with no human intervention.

Technically, this has so far 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 and these interventions have been very frequent.

And there are all kinds of situations in which it is difficult to envisage how a driverless pod would cope: how would it distinguish between a traffic jam and a row of parked cars? How would two pods meeting each other on a single carriageway road resolve priority? How could security be assured when a pod would have to stop if someone with evil intent stepped in front of the vehicle?

The more that one analyses driverless cars, the less realistic they appear. The whole concept seems to be borne of the needs of the tech companies to find some use for their monopoly profits and 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 it has numerous damaging effects. Firstly, researchers in other fields of transport, such as those 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 helps 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. Already, politicians discussing transport policy often use this excuse.

Thirdly, it is unlikely that a viable business model for driverless cars will emerge. None of the cars so far on trial have been priced but it is unlikely that any would cost less than a six figure sum. Even mass production might not make them affordable.
The immensity of the task of creating vehicles capable of self-driving in all weathers, on all types of roads (and off-road lanes) and in situations with large numbers of pedestrians may mean that these vehicles will never be feasible and the advantages, such as freeing up central city parking, reducing road casualties and allowing non-drivers 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.

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster and a former Labour parliamentary candidate. Signed copies of his book, Driverless cars: on a road to nowhere are available for £10 post free from the author: Christian.Wolmar@gmail.com

This article originally appeared in Fabian Review (Spring 2018).