What was once confined to the realms of science fiction has long since entered the real world vocabulary. We may not be there just yet, but the technology certainly is, meaning diverless cars are just a short journey away from becoming common sights on the planet’s road networks.
But will we ever truly achieve completely driverless roads?
The answer really depends on who you ask. Air travel has relied on human pilots for decades not because it’s the only option, but rather because it’s the only option passengers really trust. This is despite the fact most accidents and incidents result from human error, rather than technological.
Flip this perspective on its head, though, and you’ll be in league with some of the world’s most innovative and forward thinking companies who clearly believe driverless roads are possible, if not inevitable. Tesla’s autopilot functionality is arguably more mind blowing than Elon Musk’s extracurricular indulgences. Waymo, formerly Google’s driverless car project, hit the seven million miles mark this summer. French-made driverless bus, Navaya, has already been tested in East London and at Heathrow Airport. Addison Lee is planning rolling out autonomous taxis across the UK capital by 2021.
For proof of just how far-reaching the driverless revolution now is, take a look away from Silicon Valley’s tech giants and cities with established reputations for large scale transport investment. Milton Keynes welcomed its fleet of driverless taxis earlier this year. Melbourne’s ‘public transport desert suburbs’ such as Doncaster are currently the focus of a driverless train bid, connecting downtown, the airport and residential areas undergoing rapid growth.
Of course it hasn’t all been plain cruising. Uber halted testing its own self-driving cars in all US cities after a 49-year-old woman was hit by one and subsequently died in March 2018.
So while there’s clearly progress that needs to be made in order to perfect the technology, leaps and bounds are being made in the journey towards that goal. And for those who get to the desired destination first the rewards will be substantial. By 2035 the driverless car market could be worth $77billion according to the Boston Consulting Group. The arrival of these systems conveniently coinciding with the green vehicle revolution, with Auto Trader about to launch a standalone website for electric cars due to the overwhelming demand for information from the public.
Put simply, the way we get around is about to dramatically change.
“Yes they are,” Roger Atkins, founder of Electric Vehicles Outlook Ltd, confidently says when asked if driverless roads are set to become a reality. “But there are some big challenges to overcome and there will be a 'hybrid' period where both humans and robots are sharing journeys.
“Closed loop environments are already seeing autonomous vehicles in carefully controlled action – places like ports, airports, and academic and business campuses,” he continues, before explaining how close we are to seeing this technology rolled out in open environments.
“My belief is we won't see one road full autonomy until around 2024 or 2025. Announcements that it will be with us sooner than that capture the headlines and imagination but are probably not helpful in the long run.”
This may be disappointing news for futurists keen to see what could be the 21st century’s biggest step forward in mobility take to the streets, but Atkins’ realism is refreshing at a moment in history when the news is so often dominated by partisan enthusiasm that can border on delusion. Notwithstanding the fact that the systems have to be perfect before they can be used by the majority on an everyday basis.
“We will get there. We must get there,” Atkins continues. “Here's why: in order to rapidly deliver the counter-measures to mitigate climate change the big picture part of it all is the switch from a linear to a circular economy. Put simply, that means maximising efficiency and utilisation, so enter stage left the autonomous vehicle. In fact, there's a quartet of change now bearing down on the auto industry – connected, autonomous, shared, and electric.”
If we can be clear on why driverless is necessary then what about the tangible benefits? Again, Atkins is quick to explain these are plentiful, varied and could help solve the biggest challenge of our time— reducing emissions.
“There are plenty of credible advantages coming towards us. Improved traffic flow AKA less traffic congestion as the pilot is able to use myriad data sources – not just replicating human hand-eye co-ordination,” he says.
“Greater energy efficiency as the driver is currently the biggest variable in how a vehicle performs - using less fossil fuel or fewer electrons for any given journey obviously makes sense. As to business, billions of miles travelled is said to be worth more than millions of units sold. So car companies might become 'rental' companies so to speak.”
Of course safety is a huge issue when it comes to autonomous vehicles, but Atkins doesn’t agree that this is where the technology falls down. While admitting that current systems can’t match the hand-eye coordination of humans, there will come a time when they can beat the natural abilities of our species. The result of which could well be a significant reduction in injuries and fatalities, perhaps even bringing annual death tolls down to somewhere near zero.
“The global ageing population is a looming threat to society,” Atkins responds when asked about any other, perhaps less obvious advantages of driverless technology. “Ensuring older people can be more easily mobile will mean a better quality of life, more inclusion for longer in the workplace and elsewhere, possibly less depression and loneliness, and therefore a lighter burden on the health service.”
He certainly paints an enticing picture of where we could be heading in the not-too-distant future. Alphabet Inc – parent company of Google and Waymo – is jostling for pole position to take us there, alongside Chinese firms like Baido and Tencent. Traditional vehicle manufacturers are increasingly keen to take up the role as pioneering partners.
Of course it’s impossible to predict what’s coming next, whether discussing driverless cars and roads or e-commerce, but one thing seems certain – in order to really start the ignition of the autonomous vehicle revolution it’s likely we’ll need to see industry-wide adoption, research and development, which the industry already seems ready for.