Driverless cars: Connected chaos or green dream?

With the most extensive UK trials of driverless cars already underway, it is worth pausing to ask what autonomous vehicles will really mean for our roads, our lives and for the green transport agenda.

While it is highly likely that driverless car technology will pave the way for increased levels of car sharing/ car club style transport systems, reduce individual car ownership and make it easier to use alternative fuel technology, this is balanced by a concern that driverless cars will actually lead to a huge growth in car journeys.

That’s because, should autonomous car technology become widespread, people will be tempted to use cars more frequently including those who currently can’t or won’t drive. Even people, who can drive and enjoy driving, will find they can use cars for longer and more frequently, without fatigue or boredom being an issue.

Car use could become convenient and affordable for almost everyone and much more comfortable than bus or train travel which currently provides the majority of transport for the car-less.

However, before you accuse us of finding fault in an exciting new technology before it even hits the road, autonomous cars also have the potential to make road transport safer, greener and more efficient.

Efficient in the sense that traffic flow will become smoother and virtually eliminate driver error; lessening the frequency of fuel-sapping traffic jams and eliminating unnecessary over-revving of engines. With self-driving cars, we will become a nation of untrained eco-drivers maximising fuel economy and minimising vehicle emissions.

Driverless cars could also reduce car ownership, so freeing up road space, and make using electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen cars easier. With the help of wireless charging, electric cars will be able to take themselves off for charging when needed and calculate automatically if they have enough reserves to make the journey required by a customer.

There is also the potential that self-driving electric cars will be complemented by electric highways; where the road itself becomes one big battery charger. The Highways Agency is already planning trials of just such technology, to quickly follow on from the launch of the driverless car trials taking place across four cities during 2015.

Volvo Halo

The flexibility and diversity of driverless vehicles will likely be their key to success. As we've already seen many of the early autonomous vehicles aren't simply cars with fancy cameras and sensors added to them.

Many of the earliest concepts are actually small, off-road vehicles designed for use around campuses and shopping centres, like two of the stars of the new UK trials; the Meridian shuttle under trial in Greenwich, which is an open-sided eight-seater vehicle and the two-seat Lutz Pathfinders (pictured) in use in Milton Keynes.

Not only will driverless cars make it possible to enjoy stress- and trouble-free car journeys, they will also find use as last- and first-mile transport solutions, complementing existing transport systems, joining journeys at modal interchanges and making transport easier and more accessible to all.

We also have to consider the health and social cost of our current not-so-smart driver-piloted vehicles; with road accidents estimated to cost just shy of £15 billion a year (DfT figures from 2013) in damage, loss of output, cost of medical care and the human cost associated with these tragedies.

According to a new report from KPMG, the development of driverless and connected cars in replacement of human-piloted vehicles will have a huge impact on the UK economy; delivering a £51 billion economic boost and reducing serious road traffic accidents by more than 25,000 a year by 2030.

It is also estimated that it could create an extra 320,000 jobs in the UK - although taxi drivers seem to be concerned that it could be at the cost of their jobs, if a recent protest in London is anything to go by.

Then there is the cost of traffic pollution, which is thought to kill at least 5,000 people a year in the UK, according to research by MIT scientists published in 2012. If driverless vehicles make using alternative fuel vehicles such as electric cars and car sharing easier, then they could play a serious role in tackling pollution rather than adding to it.

It is worth noting that many of early the concepts like the aforementioned Meridian and Lutz Pathfinders are electric (or at least hybrid, in the case of Google’s trials with a modified Toyota Prius) so it would seem that environmental concerns are being accounted for from the very beginning – something that can’t be said for human-driven vehicles. The exception to this is the Bowler Wildcat being trialled in Bristol, a huge monstrous-looking modified Land Rover, but there is time to change that yet.

Whatever the future for driverless cars, the UK is clearly preparing to take a leading role in their development. With trials taking place in Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Bristol and Coventry, supported by the likes of Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, Arup, Tata, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, together with the ever-unfolding digital revolution, there seems to be no stopping the relentless march of progress, and who would want to?

The Budget last month saw the UK government stepping up its support for driverless vehicles, adding to its existing £19 million trial this year with the promise of a £100 million in support for autonomous technology, which it expects will be matched by funding from industry and is believed could lead the way to a £900 billion industry by 2019.

As the UK motor sector follows in the footsteps of early pioneers such as Google, it is undoubtedly an exciting time for the UK and while both the benefits and impacts of driverless vehicles need to be closely analysed, there is plenty of scope too, to believe that autonomous vehicles could lead to cleaner, safer and more efficient transport in the future; a future which could with us sooner than we think.

Faye Sunderland

Author:Faye Sunderland
Date Updated:20th Apr 2015

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