Utopian or dystopian? Either way, the future is driverless cars

It may be coy about its plans, but scandal-hit Volkswagen has jumped on the bandwagon to a brave new world free of human error and emissions. Andrew Dewson reports on how far the new technology has come – and how far it still has to go

Andrew Dewson
US Business Correspondent
Friday 13 November 2015 02:00
Some say the driverless car market could be worth $42bn (£28bn) a year by 2025
Some say the driverless car market could be worth $42bn (£28bn) a year by 2025

Volkswagen is in the kind of trouble that could devastate the finances of the world’s largest car maker for years, but apparently that isn’t stopping it from jumping on the driverless car bandwagon.

On Tuesday the company poached Johann Jungwirth from Apple, no less, where (allegedly) he had been working on the tech giant’s development of driverless cars. “Clean diesel” hadn’t worked out very well for Volkswagen, so ditching the driver along with the internal combustion engine might just be its “get out of jail” card.

However Mr Jungwirth plays his part in tackling VW’s self-inflicted troubles, the chances are that driverless cars will be available within the next five years. Or will they? We were promised jetpacks once, and we are still waiting. That has not stopped the Boston Consulting Group from claiming that the driverless car market could be worth $42bn (£28bn) a year by 2025.

The list of big names involved in driverless car projects reads like a who’s who of tech and cars. On the tech side, Google X led the way and expects to have a car ready for the market by 2018, with Apple and its “Project Titan” close behind. Tesla Motors has already released a software update allowing some of its customers to drive on cruise control.

And we have had the first driverless car crash: in July three Google employees suffered minor injuries when their driverless Lexus was pranged.

VW is the latest carmaker to start investing in the brains required (even if Mr Jungwirth’s role is in its new “digitalisation strategy department”, which is not officially developing driverless technology), but even it is a little behind the curve. BMW’s driverless plans are well advanced, as are Audi and Volvo’s.

And to illustrate the widespread appeal of driverless and electric car technology, a Chinese real estate group called Vanke has announced that it has developed a solar-powered driverless car.

Lauren Isaac, manager of sustainable transportation at the engineering consultancy WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff, said the impact of driverless cars could be enormous but is far from settled. “I think the two biggest hurdles to driverless cars are regulation and public willingness to use them. The technology is advancing almost every day, but the industry’s ability to persuade enough people to ditch regular cars in favour of going driverless will be what determines the outcome.”

On the regulatory side, there are six states in the US that have passed legislation on the testing of driverless cars. All the companies involved need to be registered and must provide comprehensive research data on testing.

Other states, such as Texas, have purposely not introduced testing legislation for fear of stifling development. The University of Texas announced a research and development deal with Google soon after the state announced that it would not regulate the industry.

As usual with technology, California is expected to take the lead in regulating the personal use of driverless cars before the market can really open up. The British Government has, by its own standards, been relatively proactive: the Department for Transport produced a regulatory framework document. But the UK is still a long way from having the legal environment in which drivers will surrender the car keys to a robot.

The regulatory framework is one thing; it is the reaction of consumers that will make or break driverless cars.

“From my experience it is rare to find more than half an audience that would be willing to get into a driverless car,” said Ms Isaac. “Most of the advances in automated vehicle technology that we are seeing are incremental, allowing consumers more time to let go of control. Cruise control, self-parking and lane-changing safety-warning technologies are now common, and there are more on the way.”

Most people are happy to get into driverless trains, even if they are often blissfully unaware that there is no human driver. Driverless cars are different – but with over 90 per cent of accidents due to human error, Ms Isaac believes consumers will start to see the potential of driverless cars for improving safety.

There are other potential benefits. Driverless cars could bring mobility to many people who might otherwise be unable to use a car, particularly the elderly and infirm. The sharing of transport is another possibility with driverless cars, offering the promise of reduced congestion and lower costs for car ownership.

“There are two potential scenarios – one utopian and one dystopian,” said Ms Isaac. “The former would be a society with a much greater vehicle and ride-sharing culture. People could make much more efficient transportation decisions and there could be a significant reduction in the need for parking.

“The latter is a scenario where people use their cars far more because they can perform tasks without a driver and are willing to commute further because they can work in their car. That would have major implications for infrastructure and congestion.”

In some American cities, parking takes up more than one third of land use. Reduced demand for parking could open cities up to more green space and infrastructure suited to walking – quality of life improvements that are unimaginable given our current reliance on petrol and diesel-engine cars.

Perhaps the most significant overall impact of driverless vehicles lies in the assumption that they will all be electric. The implications of all-electric car use are massive – decreasing demand for oil despite increasing demand for electricity, improvements to our environment and lower pollution.

Drivers will be offered a greater amount of semi-autonomous technology in the very near future, but being able to sleep off your hangover while a robot drives you to work is still some way off.

Not that far off, though.

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