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Driverless cars won’t deliver a transport revolution

The breathless hype around driverless electric vehicles once promised an urban transport “revolution”, with claims that new technologies would cease congestion and eliminate harm- ful emissions. The potential benefits of these new technologies are stim- ulating both activity and anxiety in the auto industry – specifically around whether the cost of invest- ment will be justified by profits from sales of new vehicles.
The initial enthusiasm for driver- less vehicles has gradually subsided, as the difficulties with introducing such technologies at scale in cit- ies become better understood. As I explain in my new book Driving Change: Travel in the 21st Century, the future of the car is likely to be less exciting than many suppose. Rather than a revolution, these inno- vations will offer gradual change, when – and indeed if – the auto industry can make it worthwhile.
Of course, electric motors will help to reduce tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. But commercial success is likely to depend on the optimal choice of battery chemistry to maximise the car’s range, while delivering long life, lightweight and fast recharging cells. The recent decision by British inventor James Dyson to cancel his electric car project highlights the risks for new entrants.
Automated systems can already relieve drivers of tasks such as park- ing, and may ultimately lead to driv- erless travel. Yet both the perfor- mance and timing of autonomous vehicles (AVs) are very uncertain
– independent observers predict an extended timescale for wide deploy- ment: perhaps the 2040s to 2050s.

Safety first

A key task is to agree safety standards for AVs. People are willing to accept some small risk of death or injury when at the wheel of their own car, even though 1,784 people were killed on UK roads in 2018. But when someone else in is charge – as for rail and air travel – we demand far higher standards. AVs are potentially much safer, since they could eliminate human error that is responsible for 95% of road accidents.
Yet to demonstrate safe perfor- mance would require huge amounts of on-road testing, once the technol- ogy reaches an acceptable standard. Proponents argue that the best is the enemy of the good, so that AVs should be accepted for general use once they are better than a good human driver, with the expectation that their safety performance will improve as the technology is refined with increasing experience.
Within the auto industry, there’s a sense of inevitability that driverless
cars are the future. But there will need to be demonstrable benefits if the public is to pay the extra costs. Eliminating human taxi drivers could offer a substantial economic benefit: a robotic taxi summoned with an app is seen by some as an alternative to owning your own car.
Yet the feasibility of robotaxis is far from clear, particularly in cit- ies with historic street layouts and extensive kerbside parking, where narrow roads require negotiation between drivers going in opposite directions. Driverless vehicles are initially being deployed in well-de- fined low-speed locations such as campuses, airports and business parks. Motorways where pedestri- ans and cyclists are excluded offer another likely location – yet getting to and from such dedicated roads would require navigation through populated streets, where driverless performance could be problem-atic.

Still a tough sell

Traffic congestion is the most intractable prob- lem of the road system, reflecting an excess of demand for car travel in relation to road capacity
in towns and cities where there is generally both high population density and high car ownership. Privately owned AVs could actually add to conges- tion, since they would travel without a passenger, for instance returning home after dropping people off, or cruising round the block while the owner is shopping.
Drivers will take up these inno- vations if they offer good value. Now, the task of the auto industry is to drive down costs, to make their offerings more attractive – as it has always aimed to do.