Autonomous Vehicles – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

31st July 2015
by Ben Stark

Why driverless cars will change much more than the way we drive

The driverless car, love it or loathe it….

There is no contesting that the self-driving cars being worked on today by Google, Tesla, Uber, Mercedes and a host of other automotive manufacturers are right at the vanguard of technological innovation. Yet, much of the debate surrounding driverless cars centres on two key aspects of our current relationship with motor vehicles: the potential for crashes (ones which we rightly or wrongly assume a human might avoid), and the loss of the intrinsic thrill of driving. However, this discourse is forged from our current understanding of how a car should look, feel and drive. Most concept self-driving cars like the Mercedes-Benz F105 launched at CES in January 2015 still adhere to the convention of four seats and a steering wheel, even if those seats do swivel so the occupants can all face each other and play cards.

Once the initial awe of an entirely autonomous vehicle has worn off, it is hard to get excited about cars that drive predictably and safely around every single corner, never go above the speed limit… and have swapped the throaty roar of a V12 for the silence of a lithium ion battery. Top Gear (or the latest incantation announced by Amazon) would be a rather boring show in the age of the self-driving car.

But are we at risk of missing the point by simplifying the impact of the driverless car and failing to see the huge potential they could deliver? Even the term ‘driverless car’ demonstrates we are still defining this groundbreaking invention by what’s missing, rather than what benefits it could bring - much like the first cars were labeled ‘horseless carriages’.

We should now begin considering the bigger picture in order to design fit-for-purpose vehicles and stop thinking of them as merely the next generation of car. Here are some of the impacts we predict:

A new pricing structure

Google’s vision for a fleet of self-driving cars in every city will ultimately remove the need to own a car at all – instead we will be able to call for a driverless car to arrive like a taxi. That’s a dramatic change of model. Financially we’ll be replacing monthly payments, repairs, insurance, petrol and parking tickets with a metered fee per journey (or perhaps an inclusive monthly subscription more akin to a mobile phone contract). With reduced car ownership replaced by centralised garages of hundreds of self-driving vehicles, there would be far fewer cars parked on people’s drives, and garages may be turned into an additional room in the house. No more searching for a parking space… no more parking at all. And, if your vehicle breaks down, you’ll automatically be sent a replacement to pick you up at the side of the road and onto your destination while the other one is being towed back to the garage.

The world at our fingertips

A fundamental impact self-driving cars could have is on where we choose to live. Commuters will be able to sleep on comfortable beds within their vehicles, just like sleeping in business class on a long-haul flight, and this has the potential to revolutionise the daily commute. Would I rather struggle with urban public transport but live five miles from the office, or live 50 miles out in the countryside and sleep through my commute in a smooth self-driving car? Looking beyond the car itself the very makeup of our cities, towns and villages will change, let alone our transportation infrastructure.

Making the journey the destination – creating an experience

For current drivers, the first few journeys in a self-driving car may be rather stressful as we adapt to the loss of control. However, testimonies from those who have trialed Google’s test vehicles report that the experience becomes familiar and even boring remarkably quickly. The car simply does what its supposed to, driving in a relentlessly conservative fashion. With the stress of switching lanes, dealing with other drivers, route planning and finding a parking space removed, passengers will need to find other ways to entertain themselves. Screens and games will be ubiquitous, allowing occupants to carry on working or playing as if they were at their desk or at home. People might even – shock horror – interact with each other. The journey to school or to visit relatives could become valuable family playtime rather than a chore to be undertaken as quickly as possible.

With the driving taken care of, journeys would be split into two types; minimising the duration, and others where the experience is just as important. The higher the level of creature comforts in the cabin (screens, WiFi, even beds), the less essential it could be to take the shortest route. Some leisure passengers will value the view from the window more than arriving ten minutes earlier; the pleasure of the route could become as important as the efficiency.

Safety first

Once the statistical safety of driverless cars is proved (and it will be… evidence suggests 90% of crashes involve human error with 1.27 million people killed globally in road accidents each year), parents could become more comfortable sending their children to school in self-driving vehicles. Google estimates that by 2020, its driverless cars could result in 30,000 fewer deaths and two million avoided injuries in the US alone. No more accompanied trips to band practice, swimming lessons or even the school run each morning… unless we want to.

Sharing is caring

One of the strongest supporters of self-driving cars is Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Last week he said he would buy Tesla’s entire production run of 500,000 vehicles in 2020 if they were fully autonomous. With a fleet of web-enabled Uber or Google cars on the road, all being directed by complicated software that uses the GPS locations of customers needing a ride, it’s not hard to imagine a sophisticated car-pooling system. Consumers will be able to opt for a partially shared journey with someone close by who is heading in the same direction. Costs and congestion would be reduced.

An end to waiting in all day for a delivery

Companies such as DHL and Fedex already regard self-driving cars as the next logical step in delivery of goods and packages. Whilst Amazon trials drones, consumers still need deliveries of much larger items like fridges and TVs that would require a pretty hefty drone to lift them. Connected, autonomous vehicles, would be loaded at the warehouse and devise their own optimum route to deliver across the city, even informing customers exactly what time their delivery will be. With efficient vehicles and a fully predictable traffic network, inconvenient delivery windows of four hours will be a thing of the past – you’ll know precisely when a package is due to arrive. Occasionally you might even share a ride with a package heading in the same direction as you, or even offer to drop it off at its destination for a discount on your fare, using the principle of new tech startup Nimber (which enables peer-to-peer delivery for a negotiated fee).

A reinvention and revolution

Millions of people globally are employed within the transportation industry: truck, bus, delivery and taxi drivers account for around six million jobs in the US right now, all at risk from autonomous vehicles. Beyond that, other threats exist to those working in car insurance, car finance, package couriers, the parking industry and of course car rental companies. Designing, manufacturing and maintaining driverless cars will account for some of those lost jobs (a KPMG report estimated an additional 320,000 jobs in this sector by 2030), but once the infrastructure is up and running we’ll need to find many others to make up the shortfall. 

The barriers to driverless cars remain high: drivers will need a lot of convincing that they can truly be safer than their own eyes and reactions, and emotionally self-driving cars offer a potentially much less satisfying experience compared to the variety and customisation of the current automotive world. But the benefits in terms of safety, economics and lifestyle are so compelling that once over that threshold, the rise of the self-driving vehicle will be unstoppable…. no matter what Jeremy Clarkson might make of it.

Far from just being ‘driverless’ cars, there’s an opportunity to define this new age in terms of what they are and what they offer rather than what they’re lacking. We should be thinking of them as AutoCabs or ZEDS (Zero-Effort Driving Systems) that relieve congestion by distributing traffic across all available roads to plot the most efficient route for each vehicle on the network. The automated vehicle is a stress-busting tool that will help us reclaim our leisure time and allow us to spend more of our time doing the things that matter. Driverless is the technology, but the consumer and social benefits are far wider than that.

As Charles F. Kettering famously said “The world hates change yet it is the only thing that has brought progress’. If we rethink the definition of the driverless car, clichéd as it may be, the possibilities really are endless.