Are self-driving cars safe, and four other questions about autonomous vehicles

Inevitable stock pic, from somewhere in the Netherlands. Image: Getty.

Cars are changing – fast. But are innovations such as autonomous and flying cars a bright new dawn, or just a wild pipe dream? And if they become the future’s way of getting from A to B, can we trust them to take us there safely? Here are five key questions answered by an expert.

Are self-driving cars safe?

At present, the general public doesn’t trust the concept of autonomous vehicles. In a recent survey, 15 per cent of the US public said they don’t believe there will ever be an autonomous vehicle on the market, and 42 per cent said they would never ride in a fully automated vehicle. In addition, 56 per cent of those surveyed would demand 100 per cent safety before they would take a ride, and 60 per cent said they’d demand the same level of safety – 100 per cent – before letting a family member step into a fully autonomous vehicle.

But is this fair? The Eno Center for Transportation, a non-profit, independent think tank in Washington DC, has commented that “driver error is believed to be the main reason behind over 90 per cent of all crashes”. Replacing driver-controlled cars with autonomous ones could result in far safer road travel.

To get to this point, however, all the vehicles on the road would have to be autonomous. It may be many years before this is the case, with a survey claiming that by 2034, autonomous vehicles will make up just 10 per cent of all vehicles being bought and sold.

So, we know that this will take some time and, in the interim, there will be a mix of fully autonomous, partially autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles on the roads. This has the potential to cause problems. For example, cyclists or pedestrians crossing the road may make misplaced assumptions about a vehicle’s capability to detect them.

We need to be certain that autonomous vehicles will be safe and reliable, and there is still some way to go. There have already been a handful of cases where autonomous vehicles have killed or seriously injured other road users when they did not act as predicted in certain traffic scenarios.

Autonomous vehicles will also only be able to operate on certain roads where appropriate infrastructure is in place – for example, road markings and signs – so that the vehicle can “read” the road and know what to do in different situations.

Without these, the vehicle will either give up and shut down altogether (leaving its occupants stranded), hand control to the driver (thereby defeating the object of vehicle autonomy), or do something entirely unpredictable and possibly disastrous.

Will cars change shape?

Vehicles may become multi-purpose spaces in the years ahead, enabling occupants to perform a number of different tasks while being transported from one place to another.

It’s possible to imagine situations where cars become “offices on wheels” in which the occupants can work normally, hold meetings in transit, or even relax and recline during breaks. This will mean that the entire interior space will need to be redesigned to allow these types of activities. In turn, this could mean wider, taller and bigger vehicles, which will have further implications for road design.


What about flying cars?

There is plenty of space above us that is not currently used by aircraft, so the concept of flying cars has some merit. After all, it would potentially prevent many of the conventional problems associated with road traffic, especially congestion.

It could also be a very fast form of mobility. Flying vehicles would not be constrained by traffic controls, junctions and roundabouts. Another significant consideration would be financial; if all vehicles could fly, theoretically we would need far fewer roads, saving building and maintenance costs.

But the whole concept of flying cars would have to be regulated, or there would be no end of mid-air collisions. The consequences of these would potentially be much worse than crashes on the ground since debris falling from the sky would injure and kill people. Indeed, every mid-air collision would almost certainly have fatal implications.

Perhaps we could imagine dedicated “air corridors” controlled by on-ground traffic controllers who would work in the same way as traditional air traffic controllers. Regulation in this scenario would be essential, and it could be that the whole concept is limited to private professional operators running sky-based taxi services or transporting goods around cities. Numbers, after all, would have to be tightly controlled.

It is hard to see how members of the public would be allowed to simply purchase a flying car and drive it off the showroom forecourt. Finally, there are environmental issues, as some of the vehicles are likely to be powered by fossil-based fuels in order to achieve the necessary thrust – although the potential for electric-powered vehicles is also being explored.

And how about future driving tests?

As the motorist’s task will change from driver to monitor, it’s possible to envisage that the whole task will need to be regulated by some form of vehicle controller licence. “Controllers” (as opposed to “drivers”) will need to learn much more about the vehicle’s capabilities and limitations and will need to know what to do in emergency situations in which they may need to assume control. So, the task of controller might require twice as much knowledge as a conventional driver and the driving tests will need to evolve to reflect this.


Will all cars soon be computer-controlled?

All new cars are already computer-controlled to some degree. When a modern car has a defect, the normal procedure for finding out what is wrong involves a diagnostic test. This test relies on a computer system that links to the vehicle’s computer processor, sensors, and microchips, logging any problems or issues. It can reveal flaws including problems with the exhaust, transmission, oil tank and other systems.

It is only a relatively small step from vehicle diagnostics to vehicle control and computing capability is already present on many vehicles for functionalities such as automatic cruise control, auto-parking, and advanced or autonomous emergency braking systems. The computer systems on future cars are likely to become extremely sophisticated.

As a result, autonomous vehicles are going to be very expensive compared to non-autonomous vehicles for the first few years after introduction. This may impede widespread uptake, as is presently the case with electric vehicles.

The Conversation

Andrew Morris, Professor of Human Factors in Transport Safety, Loughborough University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.