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Are We Ready For Self-Driving Cars?

The technology's there, but are we?

12Nov

The man who first coined the term Internet of Things, Kevin Ashton, recently predicted that self-driving cars will be the norm by 2030, and that they will be on public roads by 2020.

This prediction is not the guesswork of a lunatic, it is now more or less commonly accepted as fact that the technology is nearly there. Google is already road testing completely autonomous road vehicles to great success, and other car manufacturers such as Ford, Volvo, and Mercedes are also making headway.

The advantages to a world of driverless cars are many. Every day on our roads, 3,000 people are killed by manually-driven cars, with human error contributing to more than 90% of accidents. They could also transform cities. Self-driving cars could travel in tight clusters, cutting down on idling at traffic lights, and there would be no more rush hours. Many are also advocating an on-demand model - in which we simply summon a vehicle when we need to get somewhere - which would see an end to the concept of car ownership, effectively rendering the idea of parking redundant. This means that we’ll no longer need to allocate as much land or money to parking spaces, freeing up the vast amount of space currently reserved for parking for housing. It would also put parking attendants out of the job.

These are all highly persuasive reasons for the introduction of driverless cars, but are people and city planners prepared to embrace them? At the moment, the evidence points to a resounding no. According to a new report from the National League of Cities which examined the transit plans of 68 large US cities, just 6% of them included any language about self-driving vehicles in their long-range transportation plans. Legislation has been passed in several states allowing autonomous vehicles as part of pilot programs, but that’s about the extent of it.

This could lead many cities to lose out on the advantages of driverless cars. Indeed, if better, more compact physical space is not designed, the additional efficiencies and comforts of self-driving cars will actually lead to longer mega-commutes and more sprawl, with negative consequences for the environment.

There is also the issue of the public keeping faith with driverless cars when the inevitable accidents occur. According to the head of the government policy unit responsible for overseeing their introduction, people would still have to be comfortable with 170 deaths a year. Even though this is a dramatic reduction on the many thousands there currently are, given the media’s tendency towards wild sensationalism and their disdain for context, this could rapidly see public approval driven down dramatically.

If Kevin Ashton is to be believed, there is five years for governments and people to really get on board with the idea. They will certainly need to accelerate there plans if they are to keep up with technology and realize the benefits as early as possible. 

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