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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

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