There is no longer any doubt that driverless cars are coming. Google recently announced that its test cars have completed half a million miles, with a flawless safety record. It hopes the technology will be available to the public in 2017. Elon Musk, of PayPal and Space X fame, hopes that his electric car company Tesla Motors will have autonomous cars ready a year earlier.
Outside the USA, governments and manufacturers don’t want to be left behind. Nissan has carried out the first public road test of an autonomous vehicle on a Japanese highway, and now European governments are getting in on the act. The Swedish government is preparing what it describes as the world’s first large-scale autonomous driving pilot: 100 Volvos (now a Chinese company) will be deployed on 37 miles (50 km) of busy commuter roads in and around Gothenburg, Sweden in 2017.
Here in the UK, the government has announced a £10m prize to fund a town or city to become a testing ground for autonomous vehicles. Declaring that it wants to make the UK a world centre for the development of driverless cars, it will conduct a review next year to ensure that the legislative and regulatory framework is in place. One city, Milton Keynes, is already experimenting with driverless pods. By mid-2017 (that year again!) it plans to have 100 fully autonomous vehicles running on the town’s pathways along with pedestrians, using sensors to avoid collisions.
Why this rush into driverless cars, and what will be the consequences – targeted and unexpected?
One big reason is safety. Human beings cause a million road deaths every year, and computers are less prone to error – partly because they don’t get drunk, tired or angry. Driverless cars can also move together in synchronised “herds”, which dramatically speeds up journey times.
Some observers expect that commuting distances may increase, and commuting may become much less of a bore, as drivers read, watch movies, and catch up with emails (and blog posts) while their automatic pilots take care of the driving duties.
A lot has been made of the potential for job losses as driving jobs are automated, but most of this is overdone. Until and unless computers become conscious and pass the Turing Test, humans will be needed on board taxis, vans and trucks – partly to load and unload their cargoes, and partly to deal with the unexpected developments that the real world throws up on many journeys. Evidence for this is provided by the aviation industry. Planes have been flown “by wire” for decades, but we still don’t have pilot-less passenger or cargo planes.