WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The world around us is changing rapidly and the UK Government has just become the first government in the world to announce plans to start the transition to self-driving vehicles, quoting it’s going to be “painful and challenging.”
Following in the footsteps of Dubai and Singapore, the UK looks like it is finally getting serious about “embracing and owning the future” after the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who recently announced increased investment in 5G, Artificial Intelligence and Quantum technology research, this week warned a million British workers that “they will need to retrain” as he prepares to let driverless cars “revolutionise the British workplace and people’s lives.” He then went one further and re-affirmed an old budget pledge to “ensure genuine driverless vehicles,” including cars and trucks, will appear on Britain’s roads by 2021, adding that people should be prepared for the transition, which will likely take decades to complete, to be “very challenging”.
Over the past year car manufacturers across the UK, from Jaguar Landrover to Nissan, have been launching more self-driving cars onto the UK’s roads than ever before and now industry experts are asking how, and when the “final” transition in the UK will take place.
“It will happen, I can promise you. It is happening already,” Hammond told the BBC this week, “it is going to revolutionise our lives, it is going to revolutionise the way we work. And for some people this will be very challenging. The challenge for [the UK Government] is making sure that the million people in the UK who drive for a living, over the next 10, 20 years or so, as driverless vehicles come in, are able to retrain and re-skill so they can take up the many, many new jobs that this economy will be throwing up.”
Hammond has spent much of this week discussing autonomous vehicles but critics say that his latest budget did little to underpin his words, bar a commitment to legislate for autonomous driving without a human at the wheel – a reform already progressing through UK Parliament in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill.
“It’s a complete fantasy that we will have any driverless car by 2021 – and moreover why would we want them? What issue is this solving?” asked transport commentator Christian Wolmar, author of Driverless Cars: On A Road To Nowhere.
Meanwhile others in the field who are working on developing the technology, such as the car makers Jaguar Landrover and Nissan say now they have Hammond’s support they’re sure that the progress to get self-driving cars onto Britain’s streets “will only accelerate.”
“We should be well advanced into testing of automated vehicles by that time – there are further regulatory hurdles, but I believe that is what [Hammond is] committed to address. We’ve seen the move by Waymo in Phoenix to move to trials without a driver in the seat, and so the race is on – that’s the challenge,” added Prof Nick Reed, Head of Mobility R&D at Bosch.
Waymo, a company that started as part of Google, recently launched tests of fully driverless taxis on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, after the regulators there gave gave them the green light. Then two weeks ago Navya, a French manufacturer, unveiled a new city taxi ready for production with no driving seat, steering wheel or brakes that a human driver could use.
“There will be vehicles with automated capabilities for sale in that time frame, no question – Ford are saying vehicles without steering will be available by 2021. It’s just a question of what geographical constraints they can operate in an automated mode,” added Reed.
Wolmar argues that questions over how driverless cars will interact with pedestrians and other road users are largely insoluble.
“There might be some limited uses in controlled areas like an airport shuttle but the notion that there will ever be a dominance of driverless cars in the centre of London is a fantasy that goes with jetpacks and rockets to Sydney. Politicians are in great danger of swallowing this idea. It’s not going to happen.”
Hmmm, now where have I heard those words before? However, while I think Wolmar’s wrong, because let’s face it if we fast forward far enough, say a hundred years, noone will be able to buy a car with steering wheels and brake pedals anyway so they’ll be left no option but to get in a self-driving car whether they like it or not, but Wolmar can still revel in the fact that there are a few things that will inevitably slow the revolution down – even if they don’t stop it completely.
Today, for example, it’s no secret that the average speed of traffic in London is now slower than it was a hundred years ago when horse and carts were the dominant form of transport, and countless surveys have concluded that the average Londoner now sits stationary in over 250 hours of traffic a year, with that figure, thanks to population growth among other factors, rising to 299 hours by 2030.
Meanwhile other studies, including one by Transport for London (TFL) have suggested that London’s economy is on track to loose around £100 Billion in revenues between 2017 and 2030 as a direct result of congestion. Factor in a reduction in road accidents and deaths and a reduction in congestion and surely, therefore, it should be green lights all the way for the new technology. But wait, there are a few big flies in the ointment – culture is the first, anger from professional drivers will be the second, and the third? Well, at the moment London, specifically, receives over £250 million a year in “vehicle related tax,” think congestion charges, parking fees and fines, MOT and speeding tickets to name but a few – introduce driverless cars and a lot of that tax revenue dries up, and this fact isn’t lost on London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan.
“The adoption of the vehicles by Londoners could harm government tax revenues, reduce the number of cyclists and leave questions over who would build the roads,” he said last week at a House of Commons select committee hearing.
“I think [it’s inevitable] we will be able to overcome the challenges we face,” said Reed, “but we’re not just replacing cars with driverless cars in the future, we’re creating an entirely new mobility system to get around our cities and country in the future.”
So, while we now have a date, and the support of the Chancellor to roll out this new technology, it’ll be interesting to see how the UK, which will be one of the first countries in the world to push for the nationwide roll out of self-driving cars, overcomes the challenges they’ll face, and there will be plenty of them – ethical, financial, human, political, and those are just for starters.
Lest we forget technology is a tool, and whatever shape the transition to the new world takes it’s paramount that politicians and policy makers ensure noone is left behind. As a result I, for one, will be looking closely at the Chancellors plans to re-train over a million drivers – as and when they emerge. But lest we forget, self-driving cars won’t just impact driver’s jobs, car mechanics, parking attendants, traffic wardens, and hundreds of other professions will be affected too, and is anyone looking out for them? The transition, it seems, is starting and it’s going to be one hell of a ride.