The media is buzzing with the prospect of "driverless" cars being let loose on UK roads after it has been reported that the Chancellor will making an announcement in next week's budget.
Personally, I am bored and worried about the whole thing in equal measures. Bored, because I think we have far more serious things to worry about with transport in the UK and worried, because the whole idea is being pushed by the big interests which continue to stifle change, especially in urban areas.
Proponents of the technology talk about how it will make roads safer for all users. Don't get me wrong, vehicle technology has done wonders for occupant safety over the years and we now have things like assisted braking, collision detection and anti-skid detection. Heck, some cars even park themselves nowadays. I have no doubt that in an autonomous-utopian future cars will be safer for the people inside and outside the vehicles because on average and over time, computers will perform better than humans. Even with our cleverest cars now, the humans in control still mange to screw things up.
The real reason for the official push and the massive investment by companies is that of the need to make and sell stuff as without people spending money, the current economic model would collapse. They are also a way of cutting costs and improving the bottom line. For example, there will be tests of autonomous HGVs on the M6 which will see platoons of lorries running closely spaced, with the lead truck under human control. The following lorries will have drivers (for safety as it is a trial), but the idea will essentially squeeze lorries into a smaller length of road and in theory, use the road space for efficiently. The other benefit is being closer together, the following lorries will slipstream each other and so reduce fuel consumption.
The end game with this of course would be lorries not needing drivers at all and thus cutting out costly humans. A haulage depot could send its fleet out in the evening and customers could arrive with their goods waiting to be offloaded - hell, in a modern warehouse set up, lorries could be self-docking and robots could unload them which means even less staff are needed. Industrial robots have been here for decades, so it's not pie in the sky. Don't forget beyond road transport, aircraft and container ships have been piloted by computers for a long time!
Beyond the big trucks, there will always be a need for local deliveries and it is no coincidence that research into autonomous vehicles and drones takes place to cover the last mile. There is a real possibility that one could order something on a website and the widget turns up having never been touched by human hands!
For personal transport, the future is varied and by this I mean split between those who can afford cars and those who can't afford them or don't want them. For those that can, one will be able to jump in the car and enjoy a chauffeured journey to work with time to read, catch up with emails or nap (more than we see now at any rate!); those without will have booked a car with an app - taxi drivers will be a thing of the past as observed by the People's Cycling Front of South Gloucestershire.
For motorways and trunk roads, again, there will be similar benefits as with lorries, one can join a platoon of cars and just relax as one is whisked along. Imagine not having the fatigue of driving long distances! Actually, who even needs to learn to drive any more - yay cars for everyone (who can afford them).
Of course, there are flaws in the plan and that is the ones about road capacity and people not in cars. On motorways and trunk roads, things are already pretty safe because the road layouts are enshrined in standards which have been made mandatory. There are no people walking and cycling (banned on motorways and not provided for on trunk roads) and so control over vehicles will be relatively simple. The vehicles would talk to the road control computers and so speeds would be adjusted in real time with the system anticipating hold-ups ahead; in short, the automation would actually increase capacity and improve safety.
Of course we know that creating capacity gives more opportunities for induced demand, so the long-term flaw must be that we will end up with a strategic road system which will end up just as full as it was before.
The thing which bothers me most is what happens away from the carefully controlled conditions of the strategic road system. Cities, rural lanes, residential streets. We are told that autonomous vehicles will be safer around people walking and cycling than humans. That might be true, but it depends on the model the cars are running. For example, if autonomous vehicles are programmed to pass people cycling with a 2 metre gap, then overtaking opportunities will be hampered in town (and perhaps that would be a very good thing) but the people in the car will still get frustrated and may take control back (I'm assuming there would be an override of course) and so the safety argument goes.
What about people crossing the road? With traffic signals, the vehicles can talk to the signal controller and know when the lights will change and slow down in good time. What about zebra crossings or people just crossing - will the sensors ever be good enough to cope? There have been thought experiments about autonomous vehicles sacrificing the occupants to save other people or the vehicles being able to run over one person to avoid a crowd. In reality, the forthcoming test vehicles will be very cautious because the "powers that be" wouldn't want carnage to be the output of the experiments - although there have been issues!
Perhaps the future will be more complicated. Like cruise control, one gets on the motorway and then the car takes over, but touch the pedals or the wheel and the car cedes control to the driver. In town, I can't see the technology taking over because of the complicated way the urban environment works. If it is pushed, then expect to see people walking and cycling having a bit of fun.
Unless vehicles go 100% autonomous and with no way for people to take control, then the idea is already a busted flush. The promised mobility for non-drivers won't be possible, so apart from out-of-town logistics and clever motorway cruise control, the technology won't improve our towns and cities. We will still have the problems of congestion and car storage and until we tackle that, we are heading up the business as usual dead end.