The dangers of an autonomous vehicle revolution
This is now the forth article I have written on the impending wave of vehicle automation and so far I have been largely positive about the changes that have been promised. Attractive notions of being able to work, rest and play during long journeys and a reduced likelihood of being ploughed down by a drunk and distracted driver are all good reasons for encouraging more autonomous vehicles (AVs) on the road.
I am, however, distinctly aware that in the past we have quite often got new mobility wrong and this time could be no different. Cities like Leeds have motorways carving right through middle of them making the city centre severed and inevitably full of traffic. Over in the US, Houston has mile upon mile of soulless suburb with no discernible community focus and no feasible way to get around if you don't want to, or simply can't use a car.
AVs also have the potential to go horrifically wrong and bring about irreversible changes in the way we get around. Read on to find out how.
This could go one of two ways, both of which are either good or bad depending on your perspective. The first scenario is one in which car ownership plummets. We are an increasingly urban population and city centres are becoming more and more hostile to cars. Congestion, one way systems and pedestrianisation are turfing out car drivers as cities are redesigned for people rather than cars.
A driverless Uber model could change the way we think about mobility. There will no longer be the need to own a personal vehicle because there will be a fleet of driverless Ubers readily available for hire. They will run at a very low cost because there is no driver salary to pay, only an electric drivetrain to run and advanced use of data will ensure that the right number of vehicles are in the right place to serve the current demand.
This certainly beats constant creeping forwards in traffic
An alternative possibility, and some will say a more likely one, is that car ownership shoots up due to sales of autonomous vehicles. Now that you have your own robot chauffeur, it is of far less importance how long you spend on your commute because you can do other, more productive things whilst being transported to your destination. We can expect public transport ridership to decrease because people who didn't drive a car before, now have access to door-to-door transportation at a much lower cost than before. The result would be far higher levels of congestion on the roads, and worse, the people causing the extra delay won't care because they can spend their time productively rather than sat very angrily behind the wheel.
Now that you can have a nap or watch the Grand Tour trio on your way to work, it doesn't matter so much if you live further away. If not properly regulated, this could cause urban sprawl - process in which the suburbs extend further and further away from the centre of the city. This would result in far worse traffic in the centre, much higher levels of pollution and it becomes incredibly difficult to get around without the use of a car.
Mile after mile of houses, and not a decent pub in sight
Urban sprawl can create never ending, characterless residential areas and it means that all of your amenities have to be out of town and therefore much further away. This leaves people with no choice but to drive if they need to go anywhere and makes running a profitable bus route next to impossible which leads to - you guessed it, more traffic!
Technology isn't perfect
Anybody who has ever tried to setup a wireless printer will be able tell you that technology has some way to go until it could be considered faultless. Driverless technology is still very much unproven at large-scale and as with any technological revolution, there are likely to be a few creases that will need to be ironed out. The issue is that the consequences of a malfunction in an autonomous vehicle are somewhat more severe than being unable to print off pictures of your dream car.
If an AV does career off the road into an unsuspecting group of schoolchildren then who is to blame? Somebody has to be responsible for programming the decisions made by the vehicle and deciding how is far from easy. This throws up all sorts of questions around insurance, liability and more fundamentally, ethics. Even though there are hundreds of crashes every day on our roads, very few of them make it onto national news. When an AV crashes however it is normally a viral story and it is evidence of the fact that there is great mistrust in autonomous technology. On paper, the tech could revolutionise road safety; AVs never get tired, distracted or drunk like humans so frequently do, but whether our worries about autonomy are unfounded or not, is yet to be seen.
Autonomous vehicle exploitation
Picture this, a driverless taxi is heading down a narrow urban road on its way to collect its next passenger. Approaching in the opposite direction, is a group of young delinquents intent on ruining someone's day. They stand in the middle of the road fully aware of the fact that the approaching AV is programmed not to hurt anybody under any circumstances if at all avoidable. With no occupants to annoy, the robot taxi is powerless against the youths who steadfastly refuse to move out of the way. The would-be passenger grows increasingly frustrated at the lateness of their ride that promised to only be a few minutes away.
A modern reincarnation of an old problem
Getting around this problem is far from simple and it may even require new legislation to prevent people from carrying out this type of exploitation. There are likely to be many more, less obvious cases of exploitation too. Pulling out at a junction when you ordinarily wouldn't, cutting up the vehicle to get ahead of it - the lack of a human driver to annoy could make a lot of very bad driving behaviours suddenly feel legitimate to some.
That doesn't sound very promising...
Despite all of the above, we have been promised that autonomy is coming and that it is coming soon. The car as we currently know it has taken over 100 years to mature into what it is today and the most recent notable shift in motoring, electric cars, has reached maturity incredibly quickly. In less than 10 years Teslas have moved from obscurity into best-in-class sellers and it's looking likely that autonomous vehicles could be on track to make a similarly rapid introduction onto our roads.
Clearly, there still remain a lot of potholes on the road to autonomy with plenty of problems to leave us all scratching our heads. Many people talk about an upcoming autonomous revolution but much more likely is a gradual evolution into autonomy in which the vehicles adapt to our world, rather than us overhauling the roads to suit. With careful management and the right policy I do believe we can get autonomy right and exploit it for its benefits rather than letting its weaknesses become exposed. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.