Ignore the car industry: driverless vehicles won’t deliver a transport revolution

A robobus. Image: Getty.

The breathless hype around driverless electric vehicles once promised an urban transport “revolution”, with claims that new technologies would ease congestion and eliminate harmful emissions. The potential benefits of these new technologies are stimulating both activity and anxiety in the car industry – specifically around whether the cost of investment will be justified by profits from sales of new vehicles.

The initial enthusiasm for driverless vehicles has gradually subsided, as the difficulties with introducing such technologies at scale in cities become better understood. As I explain in my new book Driving Change: Travel in the 21st Century, the future of the car is likely to be less exciting than many suppose. Rather than a revolution, these innovations will offer gradual change, when – and indeed if – the car industry can make it worthwhile.

Of course, electric motors will help to reduce tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. But commercial success is likely to depend on the optimal choice of battery chemistry to maximise the car’s range, while delivering long-life, lightweight and fast recharging cells. The recent decision by British inventor James Dyson to cancel his electric car project highlights the risks for new entrants.

Automated systems can already relieve drivers of tasks such as parking, and may ultimately lead to driverless travel. Yet both the performance and timing of autonomous vehicles (AVs) are very uncertain – independent observers predict an extended timescale for wide deployment: perhaps the 2040s to 2050s.

Safety first

A key task is to agree safety standards for AVs. People are willing to accept some small risk of death or injury when at the wheel of their own car, even though 1,784 people were killed on UK roads in 2018. But when someone else in is charge – as for rail and air travel – we demand far higher standards. AVs are potentially much safer, since they could eliminate human error that is responsible for 95 per cent of road accidents.

Yet to demonstrate safe performance would require huge amounts of on-road testing, once the technology reaches an acceptable standard. Proponents argue that the best is the enemy of the good, so that AVs should be accepted for general use once they are better than a good human driver, with the expectation that their safety performance will improve as the technology is refined with increasing experience.

Within the car industry, there’s a sense of inevitability that driverless cars are the future. But there will need to be demonstrable benefits if the public is to pay the extra costs. Eliminating human taxi drivers could offer a substantial economic benefit: a robotic taxi summoned with an app is seen by some as an alternative to owning your own car.

Yet the feasibility of robotaxis is far from clear, particularly in cities with historic street layouts and extensive kerbside parking, where narrow roads require negotiation between drivers going in opposite directions. Driverless vehicles are initially being deployed in well-defined low-speed locations such as campuses, airports and business parks. Motorways where pedestrians and cyclists are excluded offer another likely location – yet getting to and from such dedicated roads would require navigation through populated streets, where driverless performance could be problematic.


Still a tough sell

Traffic congestion is the most intractable problem of the road system, reflecting an excess of demand for car travel in relation to road capacity in towns and cities where there is generally both high population density and high car ownership. Privately owned AVs could actually add to congestion, since they would travel without a passenger, for instance returning home after dropping people off, or cruising round the block while the owner is shopping.

Historic transport innovations have allowed step changes in the speed of travel: the railway in the 19th century, the car in the 20th. Increases in access to destinations, services, opportunities and choices made possible by such innovations have justified huge investments by manufacturers, public authorities and the travelling public.

By contrast, the new transport innovations will not increase the speed of travel. The car of the future will be electrically propelled, have extensive digital functionality and driverless options. But it’s unlikely to make much faster progress through traffic than the car of today.

These new transport innovations will not transform why and where people travel. Rather, they will offer incremental improvement to the quality of our journeys. As the car industry switches to electric propulsion and develops driverless options, the lack of a transformational offering to car buyers could make it hard to recover the costs of development.

Drivers will take up these innovations if they offer good value. Now, the task of the car industry is to drive down costs, to make their offerings more attractive – as it has always aimed to do.

The Conversation

David Metz, Honorary Professor of Transport Studies, UCL.

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

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.