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.
An insurance company like no other
Not only are we Britain’s most ethical insurance company, we campaign for sustainable transport. Sometimes that means protesting until a school gets the zebra crossing they’ve been refused, or running 60 roadshows this year to encourage people out of their cars, or fixing bicycles for free. Supporting this work is easy – you simply have to take out insurance with us. We provide home insurance, cycle insurance, travel insurance and breakdown cover – all while putting concern for the environment at the heart of all we do.