Improved safety will drive the move towards autonomous vehicles

Leon Daniels OBE

Second only to the choice of being in or out of the EU comes the opinions on autonomous vehicles (AVs).

If I read the respected Christian Wolmar’s book on this subject, supported by his spirited piece on television on Sunday Politics, then he advances a strong argument against: ‘The Roman’s legacy of narrow and meandering streets and roads will be too difficult for the artificial intelligence of AVs’.

Unlike Singapore and the USA where city streets are on a grid-like pattern, Britain has a range of street shapes and sizes, a proliferation of cyclists and an infinite number of pedestrians.

Lastly in Wolmar’s world the transition, through a mixed autonomous and manually driven environment would be impossible. It would be like changing from driving on the left to the right in a phased approach lasting several years.

The move to autonomous is in fact progressive. A new car today has dynamic cruise control, lane-keeping assist, parking assist, automatic emergency braking and so on. There is less and less for the driver to do if they choose. This will continue and we will get used to it.

Secondly, both the government and business want the efficiencies and savings that AVs can bring.

More importantly AVs will very much safer. Four or five people are killed every day by manually-driven vehicles. And while AVs may never be foolproof, they will undoubtedly have a better safety record than manually driven vehicles.

Nothing here suggests that any form of public transport will be without any human attention – the driverless Docklands Light Railway proved you can release people from a monotonous and stressful job into something more rewarding and at a lower cost.

AVs will come with major social changes – the whole illogical concept of owning a rapidly-depreciating box on wheels that you use two-three hours each day ought to be despatched.

We cannot predict to what extent people will cut loose from this and there will be those who will struggle. But we can notice that young people are far less bothered about ownership.

We would do well to remember that we (ageing) transport professionals are not the target market and there may well be greater acceptance of the social changes than we care to believe.

More importantly, the Achilles heel of the small demand-responsive bus (the disproportionate cost of labour as a proportion of total costs) is hugely improved and may help enormously in certain areas whether rural or suburban.

So, autonomous vehicles. Like Project Apollo to the Moon will it be more than 50 years between demonstrating our capability and finding a use for it? Or, will we make good progress towards much better safety, great efficiency, affordability and improving our lives? I think the latter.

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