Driverless car naysayers of the world unite

1950s vision of driverless cars

Discussion about driverless car technology is defined at present by objections to the British government’s enthusiasm for it. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling predicts the market for autonomous vehicles could be worth £28 billion to Britain by 2035 and for that reason wants a central part in it.

Opposition to the government’s view has succeeded in uniting petrol-heads with ardent campaigners for sustainable transport – groups otherwise diametrically opposed in their views. On one side, proponents of sustainable transport suspect the technology is simply the next chapter in our unhealthy obsession with car culture and will exacerbate the environmental, social and health problems that result from motorised personal transport.

Conversely, the Jeremy Clarksons of this world fear the emasculation of their preferred pastime. Perhaps they also sense that driverless tech could finally neuter the cause of road danger once and for all.

A third group is ambivalent about handing over control of their vehicle to a computer; a recent poll found 44 per cent were against driverless cars due to fears about safety and software security.

|Sedentary lifestyles already cost the NHS over £450m every year…

If the government is serious about making the country profitable through investment in transport, there would be far more benefit in weaning us all off cars in favour active travel. After all, sedentary lifestyles already cost the NHS over £450m every year.

The naysayers who cite the environmental, social and health costs of driverless car technology are likely to be right. The Department for Transport claims 96% of elderly people are convinced an autonomous car would help them get out of the house more. And a third of disabled people polled believed driverless vehicles would boost their independence. However, neither of these questionable stats can gloss over the negative effects of increasing dependence on cars for people of all ages – or the prospect of driverless cars unable to find a parking space contributing to congestion by simply remaining in perpetual motion.

The petrol-heads who bemoan the end of our seemingly lawless roads –will simply have to get used to it. Early incarnations of the driverless cars will include the option for the human driver to retake control. However, as more cars spend more of their time being operated autonomously, these models will become obsolete.

| the silver lining to an otherwise dystopian vision is the potential for reduced danger for vulnerable road users

The half of drivers who currently have concerns about their personal safety should remember that moral panic is a common prelude to new technology. In the case of driverless tech, the silver lining to an otherwise dystopian vision is the potential for reduced danger for vulnerable road users.

There is little reason why all autonomous vehicles will not be forced to drive with strict regard for other road users and certainly within the speed limit. One might reasonably ask why this is not already the case. After all, law and enforcement, and concern for the safety of others to one side, the technology to implement speed limiter on all vehicles already exists.

The reason we ignore such a possibility is political. The former Andrew Gilligan, the former London commissioner for cycling, once described parking as ‘the third rail of politics – if you touch it, you die’. If one follows that reasoning, speed limits must seem like a fate worse than death. However, driverless cars offer cowardly governments the chance to limit vehicle speed at the flick of a switch and by the back door.

Driverless cars appear to be coming whether anybody likes it or not. While it’s reasonable to expect them to herald the world’s first roads where drivers are physically unable to speed, it is naive to expect them to spell an end to all the misery associated with motorised traffic – not least because the answer to climate change, road danger, social division and sedentary lifestyle have little or nothing to do with technology.

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  1. Callum Thomson


    Have you considered the possibility that driverless cars may in fact drastically reduce the numbers of cars on our roads?

    Driverless vehicles could allow people to rent cars as required, instead of owning one of their own – ideally only for journeys that are hard to accomplish by public transport.

    Think about it: what proportion of each car’s time is spent actually being driven? I guess less than 2%.

    Instead of having lots of cars which go unused most of the time, we could fleets of electric driverless cars available for hire which would never need to be parked outside their owners’ houses.

    The streets, then free of the clutter of parked cars (the RAC projects that there will be 1.3 cars per household by 2021) would be easier to use for pedestrians, cyclists, trams and buses, thereby encouraging active travel.

    Perhaps this is cloud-cuckoo-land stuff. Certainly the car manufacturers would be a powerful lobby to overcome if they realised the drastic impact this approach would have on sales. But there is at least a possibility that driverless vehicles could eventually be a positive thing environmentally.

    • The ETA


      Yes, you are absolutely right in the sense that driverless technology has the potential to almost entirely do away with the concept of private car ownership and replace it with a highly-efficient public/private transport model – think Uber, but without a human at the wheel. However, given the power of the car industry and the degree to which private car ownership is ingrained in British culture, the more efficient use of road space afforded by driverless cars is perhaps more likely to encourage more cars, not fewer.

  2. Kevin Holland


    What are proposed plans for the masses of haulage companies regarding autonomous lorries?

    Kind Regards


  3. David


    To succeed, driverless cars will need to have a safety record on a par with trains and aeroplanes, which could be difficult whilst there are manually driven cars still on the road. The ownership model for vehicles could change significantly too. Why pay for parking when your car can go and give somebody else a lift to where they want to go whilst you are shopping, working or whatever else?
    Technically, every car with a satnav and cruise control could be prevented from breaking the speed limit immediately. Generally those who are against speed cameras, which fine them if they break the law, are all in favour of CCTV to prevent hoodlums breaking the law and stealing their car!

  4. Stan Best


    If this happens will the concept of owning a car become irrelevant? It’s a big cultural and economic disruption.

  5. Paul Lovatt Smith


    Well-said, ETA. Driverless cars will drastically reduce danger on roads – currently a major factor in preventing people from cycling and walking. Although I am generally a technophobe I’d rather face the low risk of encountering a malfunctioning computer-driven vehicle than the guaranteed certainty of sharing the road with cars driven by human beings who are speeding or driving carelessly or dangerously, while I am walking or cycling. The other thing driverless cars will do, as Stan Best says, is force a cultural change. Town centers will become much more pleasant places to live, freer of parked vehicles and polluting, speeding traffic. And they will reduce the need for car ownership, which means saving money. Bring it on!

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