Is the world ready for fully autonomous cars?
Announcements surrounding autonomous cars have come in thick and fast over the past few years. What is hardly ever mentioned is whether the world at large is ready for them.
We’re only talking about fully autonomous vehicles, the fifth and final level of automation, choosing not to venture into the grey area where levels 1 to 4 lie.
The potential of autonomous cars to revolutionise the way we travel is unprecedented. The scale of the challenges and opportunities infrastructure planners and highways authorities are facing hasn’t been seen since we shifted from hooves to wheels.
The biggest issue with roads is the increasing number of vehicles crowding onto them. Expanding road networks to increase capacity is an option – but is often under-funded. Driverless cars offer a different option. By utilising what we’ve already got, with some slight adaptations, autonomous cars could increase road capacity safely by removing human error from the equation.
Quite boldly, driverless car companies are storming ahead with development and testing, in the hope that respective governments will see increasing demand and step up efforts to develop necessary infrastructure changes to accommodate them. This is a similar phenomenon to when the Model T emerged as the first mass-produced car. The road infrastructure was lacking, but incredible demand forced governments to speed up a road network.
Most autonomous cars are going to be powered electronically – for a number of reasons. Manufacturers are being urged to reduce fuel consumption, and so while they’re developing entirely new ranges of autonomous vehicles, it makes sense for them to be electric from the start. This will make them more attractive to forward-thinking consumers and to pre-empt the recall, scrappage and perhaps prohibition of petrol vehicles (like what we’re now seeing with diesel). From a mechanical perspective, electric vehicles are more easily driven by a computer. Lastly and probably most significantly, it’s cheaper and safer to recharge than conventional filling up. What would need addressing is the way batteries are maintained. At the moment, some manufacturers only lease the batteries to consumers and it’s not always clear whose responsibility the battery is.
Massive investment is needed in the UK’s charging infrastructure to accommodate, not only the seemingly inevitable rise of autonomous cars, but the more immediate rise of electric vehicles (EVs). The other concern often raised is the additional pressure this upsurge will place on the National Grid. The 2020s will see a number of power stations close (due to being at the end of their serviceable life), according to the BBC. It’s not clear yet what will replace this lost power.
The UK’s existing recharging network is negligible, making a long journey a daunting prospect in an autonomous electric vehicle. Shell recently announced plans to add quick-charging stations to 10 of their forecourts. It isn’t much yet, but presuming other chains take a similar approach, the wheel of change will have started moving. By the time autonomous vehicles are on the roads in significant numbers, the charging infrastructure should have developed to match the demand.
It’s estimated that by 2040, the UK will need 2.5 million new charging points, each costing more than £26,000. This would cost in the region of £65bn by 2040.
Legislation & Government
The UK Government supports developing and testing autonomous vehicles. Last year, a £100m Connected and Autonomous Vehicles testing infrastructure programme was set up. Business and Energy Secretary, Greg Clark said:
‘Combining ambitious new technologies and innovative business models to address social and economic challenges lies at the heart of the government’s modern Industrial Strategy. Accelerating connected and autonomous vehicle technology development is central to achieving this ambition and will help to ensure the UK is one of the world’s go-to locations to develop this sector.’
The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill was introduced to parliament on 18 October 2017. It aims to make it easier for autonomous technologies to be developed in the UK by simplifying the process of getting them on the road.
The bill is also aiming to set out a plan for insurance companies by starting a ‘single insurer model’. The plan is to extend compulsory motor insurance that everyone buys to include driverless cars in one policy. Effectively, an insurance company covers the driver’s use of the vehicle and the autonomous technology. By approaching it like this, a victim could claim even if the car was in autonomous mode and not under the control of the driver at the time.
It’s hugely significant that governments across the globe are beginning to draft legislation and fund this technology – surely a sign that the technology is being embraced and seen as the future.
It’s been argued that the biggest remaining obstacle to fully automated driving isn’t technology, but attitudes. Although it seems like automation in driving has been around for a long time, not that long ago the very idea was science fiction, but the idea is fast becoming reality. It seems people have accepted the idea of their existence, but we’ll have to wait until one is commercially available to prove popularity among consumers. For a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) whitepaper, published in May 2016, researchers posed various questions on the subject to nearly 3,000 people, including whether they’d be willing to be driven by a fully autonomous vehicle.
This research found that younger adults (aged 25–44) are the most supportive group on the subject of autonomous cars, compared to other age groups. Although only 40% of the younger adults said they’d be willing to be driven by an autonomous car.
An interesting thing to consider is which company will be the first to deliver an affordable fully autonomous vehicle to the market. This could determine the success of autonomous vehicles. According to a Deloitte study, 47% of consumers would trust a traditional car manufacturer’s autonomous vehicle and only 20% would trust a ‘Silicon Valley’ technology company’s car.
Essentially, there already has been a shift in people’s behaviour. Car manufacturers have marketed the idea of driving as freedom for a very long time. In today’s connected world, driving is being seen less as a form of freedom, but as an irritant – disconnecting us from our social lives.
So, are we prepared for handing over control to our vehicles?
In a word, no. Given the necessary regulatory work and legal and infrastructure changes needed, if a manufacturing breakthrough meant autonomous cars became widely available from tomorrow, the world wouldn’t be ready. But things are starting to move in this space and conversations and plans have started taking shape across the world. The fact that many places and companies are testing the technology so vigorously shows how seriously this disruptive technology is being taken.
The necessary infrastructure developments and attitudes won’t simply appear overnight, but it seems like only a matter of time before autonomous vehicles dominate our roads.