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.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.