Jetlagged and dazed, you arrive after a long journey at an international airport. Flash your passport at the security guard, collect your baggage, and then follow the signs to the car rental kiosks. “Which side of the road do they drive on here?” you might ponder.
But today, no such curiosity enters your mind. Instead, as you leave the arrivals terminal, the driverless hire car you just booked on your smartphone pulls up and whisks you away without the stress of navigating an unfamiliar city. Enter the address of your hotel on the tablet controls and the vehicle automatically sets off, letting you sit back, relax and take in the view.
It sounds like something from science fiction, but we are, in fact, far closer to seeing autonomous cars on Britain’s roads than you might think. The majority of the technology required to make the dream of the ‘driverless’ car a reality is already in use - automatic parking, cruise control, electronic stability control, satellite navigation and intelligent braking systems have been optional extras on cars for many years. We’re already accustomed to travelling in aircrafts capable of flying themselves, so why should the idea of a car driving on autopilot seem like such an alien concept?
Part of the answer lies in public perception: fears over safety, reliability or simply the unknown. On that count, the proof of the pudding will be in the testing. Once trials begin on Britain’s highways and their roadworthiness can be demonstrated publicly, it will be possible for the tide of scepticism to be turned. However, the most immediate hurdle to overcome is in satisfying legislators that autonomous vehicles have a place on our roads.
A governmental review of plans for the UK-wide use of autonomous cars published in February this year found that ‘our legal and regulatory framework is not a barrier to the testing of automated vehicles on public roads’. But, as an earlier government call for consultation concedes, Britain is by no means leading the race towards autonomous driving. While the British Government is ready to allow testing, road trials have been taking place elsewhere around the world for several years. Britain is lagging behind the US to the tune of one million miles – the distance Google’s driverless cars have so far travelled on American roads since several states passed laws permitting their use.
The success of Google’s prototypes is encouraging. Using 360 degree sensors, lasers, learning algorithms and GPS, they have demonstrated just how precisely their cars can navigate public roads, and shown the world that autonomous driving is no longer a pie in the sky idea.
Ultimately, the law does not require root and branch change to accommodate driverless cars. Realistically, even the most zealous of experimenters will wish to respect the rules of the road with as much control over test conditions as possible. This is why we’re more likely to see the pods which couldn’t go above 15mph on the busy streets of Milton Keynes than we are to encounter a land speed record attempt on the M1.
What does need to be clarified in this previously unexplored area is the concept of liability. For the purposes of testing, the government also published a Code of Practice for decision makers and developers alike. It explains their stance on issues such as insurance (complying with the standard dos and don’ts for the purposes of compensation); safety, where cars must be roadworthy at all times and prevented from harming other road users where at all possible; and also in terms of regulation where the rules of the road will apply at all times, just as they do to manual drivers.
These small alterations in legislation could provide the spark for one of the most dramatic revolutions in travel since the invention of the automobile itself.
While many may harbour concerns over the safety of autonomous vehicles, you can’t ignore the argument that reducing the risk of human error may lead to fewer road accidents.
Driverless cars could also vastly improve road management, reduce emissions, ease congestion and, ultimately, cut the cost of motoring in the long run. Equipped with technology to plot the greenest and quickest routes, they will be both more environmentally-friendly and more time efficient. The autonomous vehicles would also allow the existing road network to cope with more cars by eliminating needless braking, lane-changing and speed fluctuation. Traffic lights too might be rendered redundant, freeing up space in cities, as autonomous cars could be developed to communicate with each other to ensure consistent traffic flow.
While journey times would be cut, motorists would also win back time every day, as they would no longer need to give their undivided attention to the road during their commute and could instead spend journeys relaxing or working. The headache of finding a parking space would be consigned to history as your car would be able to drop you at your destination before driving off to find the nearest vacant spot. Such vehicles would liberate millions of people currently incapable or not permitted to drive, such as the young, elderly and visually impaired.
For manufacturers, the initial focus will be in the mechanics and gadgetry of the motorcar to permit driving without human intervention. But this would be swiftly followed by a transformation in interior design, fuelled by a change in the way passengers spend their time during journeys. Without the need for a steering wheel, gear stick, mirrors and pedals, there would be more space for comfortable seating and entertainment – making cars more like mobile lounges.
Undoubtedly, the automotive industry as a whole will be radically altered by autonomous vehicles. But if ordering a car becomes as simple as pressing a button on a smartphone, why would you bother to own one? For most of us, possessing a fleet of cars to suit every occasion is the stuff of lottery jackpot dreams - but in a world of driverless cars, consumers would have the power to choose whichever vehicle they wanted depending on their needs at any given moment.
A trip to the country? Order a 4x4. Important business meeting? An executive saloon would bring the appropriate air of gravitas. For manufacturers, the concept is both fascinating and terrifying, which is evident by the number of major firms already undertaking research. For car rental companies and car sharing enterprises – which already have the infrastructure in place to cater to such a market – the prospect is inspiring.
In essence, the advent of autonomous driving has the potential to be the most momentous change to mankind since the internet, bringing lasting social, economic and environmental benefits. Britain may want to seize the opportunity now to reap the rewards, or risk being left at the roadside.