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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.