Here's why driverless cars may not change the world after all

Same old. Image: Getty.

Driverless cars are an engineer’s dream: at last, a technology that promises to remove the human factor from the traffic system.

It is humans, after all, whose errors contribute to 75 per cent of road crashes, who introduce undesirable randomness into the mathematical simplicity of traffic flows, and who have been characterised (somewhat tongue in cheek) as “monkey drivers” with slow reaction times and short attention spans.

We are “monkey drivers”.

If only we could eliminate the human factor, we would have cities teeming with safe, efficient cars whizzing us to our destinations. Right?

Wrong. For better or worse, as long as there are humans in the transport system we cannot ignore the human factor. To do so grossly overestimates the promised benefits of driverless cars and underestimates the negative impacts they will have on our traffic networks and society.


Think like a human

First, there are the immediate technological hurdles. At high speeds this is actually relatively straightforward as interactions on freeways are already effectively “vehicle-to-vehicle”. We are travelling too fast on a freeway to communicate at a human level, so we rely on infrastructure and technology to do much of the work for us, from using indicators to following dynamic signage. Removing human error is plausible and beneficial.

But all of that changes at low speeds, where drivers have to interact at a human level, such as when making eye contact with another driver, giving the nod to a pedestrian, or waving to a cyclist to let them go ahead.

How will an automated vehicle know if a pedestrian standing near the zebra crossing is waiting to cross or chatting on the phone? How will it process regional differences in body language, such as Google Car’s confusion over a “track-standing” cyclist?

Google is already training its cars to recognise a cyclist’s hand signals, but we still have a long way to go. Similarly, without human gestures, how will the rest of us learn how to anticipate the actions of driverless cars? Recent research suggests that we don’t yet know.

Making humans comply

One of the issues with the utopian vision promised by driverless cars – cities where parking is converted into parks, or intersections where traffic lights aren’t even needed – is that it only works if 100 per cent of the vehicle fleet is automated and individual ownership makes way for a fleet of shared pay-as-you-go taxis.

But how many people will actually opt in to this vision of the future? If you don’t trust the technology, if you get motion sickness, if you enjoy driving classic cars (or motorbikes), or if you just don’t like the idea of being driven by a car that always follows the speed limit and never jumps the queue, then a driverless car may not be for you.

Not everyone will want a world of only driverless cars. Image: Patrick/Flickr/creative commons.

It is no wonder that forecasts of the market penetration of driverless cars vary so enormously. For example, estimates from the Netherlands range from 7 per cent to 61 per cent of the vehicle fleet by 2050.

Even if we do reach 100 per cent car automation, we still cannot ignore humans. Smart automated intersections promise to remove the need for traffic lights and allow twice as much traffic to use the roads. But how will non-automated cyclists approach these intersections? How will pedestrians cross them?

We may reach a stage where the road safety benefits of driverless cars are so blatantly evident that non-automated cars are made illegal, and we wonder why humans were ever trusted to drive. But until that day we will be living in a messy world of haves and have-nots with all the infrastructure required for both systems to run in parallel.

What happens when cyclists mix with driverless cars? Image: Richard Masoner/Flickr/creative commons.

No more car ownership

Then there’s the issue with sharing a driverless car fleet, with some claiming driverless cars will mean we move beyond individual ownership.

Car-sharing systems have existed for decades in the United States, yet fewer than 1 per cent of Americans are members. Even optimistic estimates top out at 10 per cent of the market.

Car-sharing has enormous potential in compact cities such as San Francisco or inner Sydney, where individual car ownership is expensive or impractical and many trips can be completed by public transit, cycling or walking. But if you live in the suburbs or a rural area, if you have one or more child seats, if you store and carry goods in your car, if you want to have a say in the style of car you ride in, then it is unlikely that car-sharing will be economical or desirable for you.


Gaming the system

If driverless cars are instead owned by individuals, that opens the door to gaming the system in a way that is likely to erode the promised congestion-busting benefits. 

Humans have an uncanny ability to make any system work for their individual benefit. When that happens, the congestion benefits promised by driverless cars are likely to be quickly undermined by human nature. The small congestion benefits promised through freeway platooning and efficient intersections are likely to be quickly undermined by increased use of driverless cars.

It’s also true that the more attractive you make travelling in driverless cars, the more people will do it. If you can catch up on emails during your hour-long drive, why bother to take the train? But some of the tactics that might remove the hassle from driverless travel could also worsen traffic.

Allowing driverless cars to run without passengers opens up an enormous potential for exploitation. Why pay for parking downtown when you can send your car back home to park (doubling the trips in peak hour in the process)? Why bother to find a parking space at all if your car can circle the block by itself while you order a latte?

Changing society, one car at a time

The biggest changes to society expand far beyond individual drivers. The largest benefit, by far, is reducing the road toll, which costs Australian society $27bn per year. Thousands of deaths and serious injuries might be prevented through automation.

Yet this is not the only potential impact. Allowing the disabled, blind and unlicensed access to a driverless car will provide them with unprecedented freedom and mobility, but it will also increase cars on the road by 2-10 per cent, once again eroding congestion benefits.

Driverless cars will also threaten the jobs of people who drive trucks, buses, taxis and Uber cars. In total, this is about 2.6 per cent of the working population, according to the 2011 Australian Census. Fewer crashes means fewer jobs in car repair and insurance, while compliant cars mean fewer parking tickets and speeding fines, reducing government revenue.

So despite all the hype, promise and predictions, no one really quite knows what the future of driverless cars will look like. But as long as humans are leaving their homes, we cannot ignore the human factor.The Conversation

Alexa Delbosc is a lecturer in transport at Monash University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Park Life: on John Claudius Loudon, the father of the modern park

Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum: an engraving from one of Loudon’s books. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Where did parks begin? Where was the first park? Who created it?

These questions aren’t actually as unanswerable as they might first appear. If you’re talking about purpose-built public parks as opposed to private gardens or common land, there’s an at least plausible answer in Derby, which at the very least is home to what might be the oldest extant example in Britain.

The Arboretum was created in 1840 by Joseph Strutt, a public-minded (ish) industrialist. His intricately landscaped park was designed to give the workers (e.g. the ones in his own cotton mills) somewhere for recreation and exercise on the two half-days off he generously gave them.

Loudon. Image: Royal Horticultural Society/Wikimedia Commons.

Strutt may have paid for it, but the real credit should perhaps go to its designer, John Claudius Loudon: he even provided the name, having been the first person to apply the word arboretum to curated botanical gardens. You thought you were having fun in a park: Loudon was trying to trick you into learning about trees.

Loudon is a now slightly obscure figure, having been eclipsed by those he influenced. A pseudo-self-made Scot (his father was a farmer who was at least successful enough to ensure his kid got an education), by the time he was 30 he’d made a fortune introducing new farming and gardening methods to southern England.

At this point, not dissuaded by – for example – the Napoleonic Wars, he sent himself on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was to, in his own words, cast off “confining coil of insular thought”, but he was especially seeking to increase his botanical knowledge. Along the way he picked up a strain of social liberalism, particularly focussed on the importance of public, ideally green, spaces.


Practical efforts in this area were hindered by discovering on his return from Europe that a dodgy investment meant he was broke, and later through health problems that highly excellent 19th-century medicine eventually attempted to cure by cutting off one of his arms. But he wrote extensively, contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and publishing Encyclopedias, magazines and various other works of his own, primarily on the subject of landscape gardening, but also tackling the design of everything from pubs to cemeteries.

The preservation and development of green space within the city was something Loudon thought about throughout his life. In fact, his first published writing was a letter about the importance of public squares in London as “breathing zones”.

One of his most intriguing ideas in this arena was sadly never developed, or at least never documented, beyond an initial thought: a proposal to surround London with a ‘promenade’, a circular route around the city that would link, to his mind, its most important features. It would run from Hyde Park, south over Vauxhall Bridge to the (now vanished) Vauxhall Gardens, then through south London to Greenwich Park. At that point, Loudon got really ambitious, with a proposed Thames crossing consisting of an iron bridge big enough for ships to sail under. On the other side the route would run in some unspecified way to meet what’s now the City Road, run up to Marylebone and back down to Hyde Park.

This proposal, which he charmingly noted would be inexpensive “with the exception of the bridge” (no, really?), would provide a day’s tour (presumably horse-propelled if you actually wanted enough time to stop and see anything) of the most interesting gardens, scenery and objects close to London. He was clearly on to something: not only the importance of urban green spaces in themselves, but the fact that within a city they could act almost in concert. Today London has several orbital walking routes which link its parks – although massive garden-based bridges, not so much.

Loudon’s green belt plan. Image: BuldingCentre.co.uk.

In 1829 “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, Loudon would go on to make an even bolder proposal: not just for what we’d now call the green belt, but green belts plural, alternating rings of city and countryside/garden which as a city expanded could keep going until they hit the sea. Although he accepted the grandiosity of such a plan perhaps made it unlikely (the fact that the following year he married a science fiction novelist feels contextually notable here), he emphasises that the important thing is the basic principle: that towns and cities should be planned in such a way that no-one has to live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside.

Loudon may have seen his legacy as his writings: three years after completing the Arboretum in Derby, he died having spent almost every penny to his name on publishing various expansive and expensive tomes to share his knowledge and promote his ideas, which might seem to have been a bit of fool’s errand given no-one much reads them now. But it’s at least highly probable that Ebenezer Howard, father of the garden city movement, had read Loudon’s ideas.

And while that Derby park may not be world famous itself, it was highly influential on the parks that came after it – including something called Central Park in somewhere called New York, for which the Arboretum was a direct inspiration. Loudon lives on.