Driverless autonomous cars and the future of transport
I’ve just been listening to a podcast in which a journalist/author is commenting upon driverless cars and autonomous cars. His name Christian Wolmar whose book is called ‘Driverless Cars and the Road to Nowhere’. He has a lot of negative things to say about autonomous cars and the future. In the podcast to me he sounded like an old guy with no imagination with regards what could be possible. It was the total opposite of the hype and to a certain extent nonsense we see coming from some technology companies. These technology companies come up with predictions for the future with unrealistic dates for when autonomous cars might be ubiquitous on our roads. There are people who seem to think we’ll be getting driverless autonomous cars within the next two or three years. That’s just crazy talk. The technology is nowhere near ready with even just the basic abilities. The truth of the matter is somewhere in between the two extremes. We will be getting autonomous vehicles, but probably not in the form expected by either of the two ends of the prediction spectrum. We may never get to a point where there are only autonomous vehicles and drivers are not allowed. There will always be circumstances where a driver will be required for one reason or another. On the positive end of the proposed future for autonomous cars I think we can agree there will be vehicles whizzing around in which there will be no driver.
Autonomous vehicles in the future
The change to autonomous vehicles will arrive both quickly and slowly. In as much as it will depend on the geolocation as well as the technology. There will be situations in some towns and cities where a combination of available technology and city transport planning will come together. It will be like a perfect storm of conditions for autonomous vehicles. Many city centres around the world will ban cars with drivers. You will arrive to the cities by public transport or by semiautonomous vehicles and change to whatever system is in place. The method of transport within the driverless zone will be the equivalent of trams, buses and trains as well as new smaller pod type vehicles. Of course there will also be the self-propelled and self-propelled but assisted by electric type of vehicles, bicycles, scooters, unicycles, Segways and even the skateboard with a handle type of scooter. Whichever type of vehicle you use will depend upon where you’re going, your age and physical ability. There’ll be a number of possibilities and we don’t need to put our thinking into the straitjacket of present-day thinking and technology. There are bound to be things possible in the future we can’t even conceive of yet.
Christian Wolmar on the podcast interview seemed to think there was only one way forward with autonomous vehicles and he couldn’t see it working. Some of the points made by Christian Wolmar did have some validity. There is still going to be some car ownership because we like to have our own personal space. We don’t necessarily want to get into a generic vehicle because it’s not going to suit our purpose. As individuals you might want to carry around equipment or goods and it could be difficult to put that into an autonomous driverless pod you don’t own. It is good to be able to cary things around you might need in your car and you don’t want to have to carry them around. Maybe you would have to lock the pod off from other users if you have personal property in the vehicle you wan tot leave there.
The cleanliness of shared vehicles could leave something to be desired. Who would want to get into an autonomous vehicle in which someone had recently vomited or otherwise made a mess of on a previous journey. A dirty vehicle like that is not necessarily going to be a huge problem. It is something which could be easily solved. There could be sensors within the vehicle which sent it off to be cleaned before it continued in service. Or if the door opens and it looks or smells disgusting inside, you don’t get in and use an app on your smart device to have the vehicle sent to a service area. There would be a sufficient number of these vehicles available within the area so you wouldn’t have to wait more than a minute or two for a clean, fresh vehicle.
Autonomous vehicles overcoming problems
There’ll be a mixture of technology and legislation to bring about the future of autonomous vehicles. At the moment the technology finds it difficult to detect bicycles on the road. The solution to this could be a requirement for bicycles to be fitted with a transponder of some sort. All autonomous vehicles and maybe even vehicles with drivers would have technology able to read the signal from the transponder. The car or the driver would be alerted to the presence of a bicycle or whatever. This could work in a similar way to the way that intelligent cruise control works. When I’m driving in my Nissan Leaf using the Pro Pilot Assist there is radar at the front which will alert when there are cars in front of me. If the car in front slows down the Nissan Leaf will also slow down. There are sensors in front of the Nissan as well which give you an alert and will stop the car if a pedestrian walks in front. You would think if a system can inform you there is a pedestrian in front it’s not a big step to be able to detect bicycles. You don’t usually tend to get a bicycle all by itself. Basically, I think we can be assured that the technology will rise to a suitable level so there is sufficient safety for pedestrians and bicycle users. We expect transport safety and I expect the technology and policy making element to deliver. There may still be accidents happen but overall it will be much safer to travel on our roads.
So what can we expect in the future?
As a society we want to have the best possible transport and that may well be provided by driverless cars . Autonomous vehicles will cut out the majority of accidents which are caused by human intervention. There will for many years to come be a mixture of present-day cars driven by humans as well as a slow increase of autonomous vehicles. The in between period will not be pretty and there is much for us to learn. On more tightly controlled stretches of road such as motorways there are more options for the cars to take over the driving. There are fewer opportunities for unforeseen happenings due to the absence of pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles like bicycles. City centres will be banning the legacy vehicles starting with fossil fuel burning cars. It’s not going to be a huge leap for city centres to take advantage of autonomous vehicle technology to provide smaller personal transit methods to work alongside trams and buses. Autonomous vehicles are not on a road to nowhere as claimed by Christian Wolmar in his book. At the same time the route to autonomous vehicles is longer than some people suggest at present. Neither will we arrive at a situation where we have zero vehicles with actual drivers. There will be many special cases where a driver is necessary. Some cities and countries will go further and deeper into the realm of vehicle autonomy. It will all depend upon the politics of the region and the available technology. It is an exciting period of change we have in front of us over the next 20 to 50 years.