Most of the technology exists, but the public are yet to be persuaded
Jumping into a car, telling it where you want to go, then sitting back and letting a computer take control might seem a distant dream. It isn’t.
In fact, most of the technology needed for such a vehicle already exists. It’s just a matter of putting it all together, getting the legislation in place to deal with it and then persuading the public to accept the idea of “driverless” motoring.
“I don’t think there are any technology challenges,” said John Miles, research professor in transitional energy strategies at Cambridge University. “The challenges to driverless cars [are about the] human reaction to them; the social and legal issues are what hold them back.”
The Government needs no convincing. Last month, Vince Cable announced £10m of funding for a competition between British cities bidding to run trials for the new technology. The Business Secretary also revealed a review of road regulations to ensure the UK is at the forefront of two areas: cars with a qualified driver on board and fully autonomous vehicles.
He said he expects to see prototype driverless cars on our streets in less than six months.
So how might this new technology change the way we live (and drive)?
For a start, many industry experts expect evolution rather than revolution. “In many ways driverless cars are already with us,” said a spokesman for British car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover. There is partial automation in many vehicles, such as intelligent braking, lane departure warning and automatic parking.
“The systems are there so that cars can pretty much drive themselves,” said Prof Miles. “No one noticed the introduction of cruise control, we’ve got collision avoidance, and we’ll soon have automatic lane change.
“Add on a satnav – though they aren’t as reliable as we would like – and link them up and you’re pretty much there.”
Improving this technology should reduce congestion and make the roads safer. Machines are much better at following rules than humans; motorway instruction signs advising drivers to slow down or not change lane to avoid creating jams are often ignored by motorists – not so a computer. Driverless cars could also automatically choose the best route to avoid congestion.
Traffic lights could also become a thing of the past, according to Prof Christoph Stiller of Germany’s Karlsruhe School of Optics and Photonics, who imagines cars communicating with each other to find the most efficient operations.
Less congestion will mean less stop-start driving; maintaining smooth and constant speeds will improve fuel efficiency. Computers could also be programmed to take automatically the greenest route, rather than the fastest one. Under computer control, vehicles could also travel much closer together, effectively “slipstreaming” one another and using less fuel to propel themselves forward, and even form multi-vehicle “trains” travelling at high speeds over long distances.
Prof Miles believes driverless cars will hand people back time. “The key thing in favour of driverless cars is time recovery. Time spent driving is dead time as we put 100pc of our effort into travelling.”
If you can order up a car at the touch of a smartphone, then owning your own car will no longer be necessary, according to Mark Ledsom, spokesman for Transport Systems Catapult which is developing the LUTZ Pathfinder – an electrically powered, two-seater pod – in Milton Keynes. “There’s an idea with the LUTZ Pathfinder in the future that people will get off the train and jump into a pod which they have ordered from their phone. If you could just call for one, and it’s there five minutes later, why would you need to own one?”
The streetscape could change. There’s been a trend to open up roads and pavements, turning streets into “shared spaces” for cars and pedestrians.
However, Lee Woodcock, a director at engineering consultancy Atkins, believes driverless cars could reverse this: “With driverless vehicles on the roads, there will be potential trust issues between people and machines.
“We could therefore see guard rails going back up on the sides of pavements and other measures put in place to provide that extra level of protection for pedestrians. This would be a backwards step in people moving freely and enjoying our cities.”
Driverless cars will certainly raise interesting ethical dilemmas: who will be responsible if things go wrong – man or machine?
Mr Ledsom says the LUTZ Pathfinder project is hoping to help to find the answers to this question.
“In the future, people might think, ‘Oh, it’s a driverless car, it will stop for me,’ and walk out in front of it,” he said.
“One of the things we’ve found out is that this technology will create a lot of questions that we need to answer that haven’t been thought up yet.”