American entrepreneur Elon Musk has announced his company Tesla would be placing self driving ‘robotaxis’ on the roads during 2020.
It’s a bold claim, and indeed a highly unlikely one, but with the technology in place, why aren’t fully autonomous vehicles being rolled onto the streets already? Facing issues of public perception and how to prepare for the unpredictable, the world of autonomy eternally seems on the brink of a breakthrough.
So where do the motivations and complications lie? Around one million people die on the roads each year, a staggering 30,000 of which are in America alone. Over 90% of these accidents are down to human error, but surveys have suggested that people are still more likely to trust an unknown taxi driver than a ‘driverless car’.
Even the notion of ‘driverless’ as opposed to ‘self-driving’ has riskier connotations, but minor points like these create overall distrust in the public eye.
A 2018 survey by CARiD (in America) revealed that over 50% of respondents would rather drive themselves than be driven by an autonomous vehicle, but concerns such as cyber-security and software failure often mask the huge benefits they could bring.
Something people often overlook when it comes to autonomous vehicles is the opportunity they could provide for independence.
Ironically, whilst some may fear the control gained by ‘robotic cars’ and software developers, others will see the chance for more freedom than ever before. For example, blind and certain disabled people will not have to rely on others for transport arrangements – they would quite literally have door-to-door service.
What is more, research has shown that taxi drivers are often more likely to drive past disabled people since accommodating their needs can take up too much time; worse still, they have been known to drop blind people off nowhere near their desired location.
It is worth shining a light on medical issues that self-driving cars could aid: say you were behind the wheel and had a heart attack, the self driving car could take over and rush you straight to A&E. Or if you’d broken your leg, you wouldn’t have to rely on an ambulance coming to find you.
In fact, over 80 conditions can inhibit you from driving, according to the DVLA, so autonomy could be hugely significant to those looking to regain some forms of control.
When it comes to solving congestion issues, we need to zoom out and look at self-driving vehicles as a collective fleet rather than a set of isolated machines facing unpredictable interactions.
Researchers are looking into the idea of ‘connectivity’, where the vehicles will be in touch with one another and integrated into systems which also oversee traffic lights etc.
Theoretically, if a self-driving car was aware of the exact timings of traffic lights, they would never have to do the classic ‘speeding up as the light turns red’ or even ‘slowing down in anticipation of a change’. Everything would be smoother and more efficient, and, in turn, safer and better for the environment.
On the environmental issue, a bit like with Uber, total journey numbers could be reduced drastically if one car could pick up multiple commuters who lie on the same route.
For the commuters themselves, the added small talk is hardly a price to pay when they could be saving on petrol and insurance. Not to mention the amount of work they could achieve during the commute, instead of staring at mind-numbing queues.
At present, the average person spends six working weeks driving, and when ‘time is money’, this is not to be ignored.
Whilst some people may raise concerns about job loss when it comes to increased autonomy, research for the UK Society of Manufacturers and Traders indicates that the development of autonomous vehicles could help generate 320,000 jobs in the UK and create a market in excess of £51 billion. It’s simply a case of employment opportunities shifting.
Indeed, thousands of jobs are evolving around the the first major hurdle ‘self-driving cars’ face: the testing. It’s not just a case of ‘Can this vehicle move from A to B?’- that’s the simple part- but rather ‘What happens if this vehicle encounters a plastic bag in the road? Or complex weather conditions’? Or a drunk driver not following a clear path?’.
There will be accidents in the process, and we will run into the familiar ‘trolley’ dilemma, but ultimately it’s project for saving lives on a truly immense scale.
So, Elon Musk may once again be overestimating his capabilities, but by no means is he overestimating the benefits ‘robotaxis’ and similar vehicles could bring. Reduced congestion, reduced environmental impact and reduced interference with daily lives, maybe even First Bus will take an interest.
Nicola Jennings is an engineering intern at the UK driverless vehicle manufacturer Aurrigo. This article is republished from BathTime, the student magazine of the University of Bath.