Cars of the future will be fitted with Shocka-seats™ that give drivers jacksie jolts every time they shout at cyclists “oi, you don’t pay road tax”. Actually, cars won’t need to be so equipped because the most dangerous component on the car – the loose nut behind the steering wheel – could soon be eradicated. Manually driving a car may become a quaint, how-we-used-to-live museum piece, with an animatronic Jeremy Clarkson explaining what a clutch was.
The day is near when we’ll wonder how we ever let humans pilot heavy and fast machines on the public highway next to unprotected humans. (In fact, I wonder that now). When all cars are self-driving, equipped with Light Detecting and Ranging LIDAR and 360-degree cameras, there will be no more ‘sorry, mate I didn’t see you’, or SMIDSYs. And the autonomous car will also know when it’s unsafe for the ‘driver’ to exit: dooring of cyclists will be history.
With cars that don’t kill, taxis without cabbies, and HGVs driven by computers not blindspot-afflicted drivers, there will less need for hard infrastructure. Many bicycle advocates believe we’ve started on a Dutch-style 40-year trajectory to getting segregated cycle paths almost everywhere but driverless cars will be here long before the end of that. Why build bike lanes when robocars and driverless trucks will be programmed to know all about space4cycling?
That’s one vision of the future. A more dystopian one involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they often are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew the tipper truck barrelling towards you will automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be put under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking – and jaycycling. With cars able to speed through junctions, electronically interacting with each other, and with no need for traffic lights, it would be harder for humans outside of driverless cars to use the roads.
If you think all of this is science fiction, think again. A report from KPMG and America’s Centre for Automotive Research concludes that driverless cars will be with us “sooner than you think”. Google has been working on the tech for nearly five years and its test cars have driven 500,000 miles on the public roads of California. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said last year “you can count on one hand the number of years until ordinary people can experience [driverless cars].” An Oxford University research team is developing retrofittable driverless car tech said to be much cheaper and simpler than Google’s LIDAR-based system. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn gushed at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show “in 2020 all the problems that we have in allowing autonomous driving will be solved.” The talk of the show was the autonomous journey of an S-Class Mercedes which auto-drove 65 miles, from Mannheim to Pforzhei in Germany, recreating the world’s first long-distance automobile journey, naughtily undertaken by Bertha Benz in 1888. And in China, First Auto Works, a civilian automobile manufacturer, is working with the military’s National University of Defense Technology to produce a driverless car.
Semi-driverless cars have actually been with us for a while. Adaptive cruise control – which uses radar or lasers to measure the distance to the car in front, slowing or accelerating the car depending on the gap – has been evolving since the late 1990s.
Volvo has had pedestrian detection tech since 2010 and, in March this year, at the Geneva motor show, Volvo executive Doug Speck entered, stage left, on a wooden bicycle to introduce cars that avoid cyclists, too. Volvo’s tech – snappily titled ‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ and promoted with anti-SMIDSY adverts – kicks in when on-board radar and cameras spot a cyclist about to be squashed. The Volvo takes over from the driver and, even at speeds of up to 80kmh, jams on the brakes. Inspired by Sweden’s wonderful Vision Zero road safety policy, which aims for no road deaths whatsoever, Volvo’s “driver support” package with collision avoidance technology, and adaptive cruise control, puts an extra £2400 on the price of the car and is “very popular”, says Dr Andrew Backhouse, one of Volvo’s Senior Function Developers.
Dr Backhouse is British but based in Sweden and works on Volvo’s pedestrian and cyclist detection software. He told me:
“The system continuously calculates what avoidance manoeuvres are required in order to avoid a collision. If the only braking manoeuvre that will avoid a collision is by slamming on the brakes, then the system goes in and triggers the brakes.”
‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ is part of Volvo’s journey towards a fully autonomous car. The company is beta testing cars that drive off by themselves to find parking spaces.
On-street parking clogging up the roads? Soon to be a thing of the past. Driverless cars will drop the passenger off at the shops and scuttle away to a hidey-hole, returning to pick up the rider at just the right time.
City planners are licking their lips: they think they’ll be able to get rid of street clutter and, without spending a penny on new infrastructure, squeeze ever more motor vehicles through the existing roads.
Driverless car consultant Brad Templeton, who worked with Google on its autonomous car project for two years, told me:
“Most people pushing driverless cars are doing so on the basis it will allow a higher volume of traffic on the roads because cars will be able to travel closer together. If this is the case, the only way this works is if you remove pedestrians and cyclists from the equation. As long as someone can still step out in traffic who is not controlled electronically, then you really can’t increase speeds and volume much beyond what they are now.”
(Cyclists and pedestrians controlled electronically? Don’t tell Eric Pickles). However, Templeton also sees a future where some form of cycling prospers:
“Cycling could be great for commute times. Many commuters might be happy to get a ride to the outskirts of the [central business district], but as they enter the congested zone, have their car drop them off next to a bike for a quick ride to work.”
While an advocate for robocars, he reckons street clutter will be with us for a while yet: “It’s a fair bit of time before [robocars] dominate the road and much longer until there are no human drivers out on the roads. So we still need the signs and the kerbs for a while. [But] as more and more cars become less of a danger, the road becomes more safe.”
While a recent AA/Populus survey found 65 percent of respondents “enjoyed driving too much to ever want a driverless car”, that means 35 percent are already willing to hand control of their driving to microprocessors. “The marketplace will not merely accept self-driving vehicles,” asserts the KPMG/Centre for Automotive Research report, “it will be the engine pulling the industry forward.”
Autonomous cars are coming whether we think we want them or not. As Volvo executive Toscan Bennett explains, “Who wouldn’t want a car which drops you at your doorstep and then goes off and parks itself?”
This driver benefit could be a benefit, too, for those in favour of liveable streets. Many of our roads are clogged with this private property storage on the public highway and if driverless cars scuttled away and hid until needed (VW Beetle, indeed) there would be a lot more space for cyclists and pedestrians.
However, there would also be greater road-space for ramming in more and more fast moving cars. Where congestion is concerned, history shows us that technological fixes promise much but never deliver. London’s tube trains were meant to remove above-ground traffic. In fact, the underground increased surface congestion. Replacing the Victorian horse with cars was meant to double the capacity of London’s roads. It didn’t.
Similarly, the sweating-the-assets promise of driverless cars won’t cure congestion. Instead, it’s highly likely more journeys will be made, quickly negating any benefit.
And more and more journeys will mean the clogged roads of today will be remembered as comparatively empty. There will be pressures to speed up the traffic using more and more tech, and perhaps pressure to restrict the freedom of cyclists and pedestrians. (Robocars will be fitted with car-cams and will capture video evidence of law-breaking cyclists, who will be called out on YouTube, using their registration numbers…)
Or – spinning the futurology dice again – there could be more space for cyclists because the accurately-driven robocars and semi-robocars of the future will be able to stick to very narrow virtual lanes, freeing up space for active travel modes.
CTC’s Roger Geffen said:
“It is hard to tell what driverless car technology would do for cycling.
“It might lead to vast improvements in cyclists’ safety, eliminating the risks from those who drive aggressively, irresponsibly or just without paying attention.
“Then again, if pedestrians and cyclists can run or swerve out in front of cars knowing they will stop, some people will doubtless take advantage of this. That would infuriate drivers, leading to calls for jay-walking and on-road cycling to be banned altogether.
“Cycling’s very survival would then be wholly dependent on getting comprehensive, high-quality segregated cycle networks built.
“Either way, we need to start thinking through the implications of driverless cars.”
And we’d better start thinking about this soon. Driverless cars will be tested on the public roads of Britain by the end of this year, says the Government.
The Department for Transport’s new £28bn plan for Britain’s roads confirms that driverless car technology is on the Government’s LIDAR: “Vehicles that can autonomously manage actions that are currently reserved for the driver…could, in the future, be able to carry out all of the driver tasks. Semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles…have the potential to make our roads work better for everyone.”
Everyone? That’s not yet a given. For sure it would be good to eliminate human error, by far the main cause of crashes, and driverless cars would definitely be good for blind/young/old/distractable/angry/disabled/drunk riders but even though we may own less cars in the future – just rent a robocar via the cloud – we run the very real risk of making our incredibly car-dependent society even more car-dependent.
One fix could be road-pricing. This is unpalatable right now but connected cars will allow for easier and easier micro-tolling. Naturally, this favours the rich, who will be the first to use robocars. No doubt the UK Government will also subsidise these rich motorists, in the same way the Government today offers £5000 bribes to multi-car families so they can add electric cars to their fleets. Robocars, called for and sent away with smartphone apps, promise stress-free mobility for elites and you can imagine a future where insurance restrictions, and legislation, allows access to some roads in robocars only.
It may take 30 to 40 years before the roads of Britain are fully populated with driverless cars. In the meantime, legislators could lean on the EU’s New Car Assessment Programme to make sure every new car is equipped with Volvo-style cyclist and pedestrian auto brake technology. (We may be waiting a while. Dr Backhouse said: “Euro NCAP is planning to introduce ratings for collision avoidance systems. 2014 will see the first ratings. There is a lot of talk about testing the system on pedestrians. Nothing is planned for cyclists though.)”
If cars no longer kill us we will be able to use the roads again, without fear. Bike paths? Where we’re going we won’t need bike paths, as Dr Emmett Brown might have said.