Autonomous Cars — Four Big Pros, Four Big Cons.

Technology is the unstoppable locomotive, thundering down the tracks to destinations unknown. When it comes to driving, the last twenty years have seen the rise of infotainment systems, viable electric cars, built-in GPS systems that actually work, and much more. But that’s nothing compared to what’s coming next.

In a few weeks, if new driving regulations come into law, drivers will be able to let their ALKS (Advanced Lane Keeping Systems) do the steering. Now admittedly, this is limited to motorways, and at speeds below 37mph. But it’s the first official recognition that autonomous cars aren’t just on the horizon, they’re almost here. The major manufacturers are locked in a Ben-Hur style chariot race to develop the first truly self-driving vehicles.

Now, call us old-fashioned worriers, but that brings to mind the Jeff Goldblum quote from Jurassic Park:

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

In this two-part article, we’re channelling Jeff and looking at the pros and cons of fully autonomous vehicles.

Let’s start optimistically, with four big upsides to autonomous vehicles.

1. Better safety — eventually.

This sounds controversial, but it really isn’t. Most traffic accidents result from the limitations of human perception and judgement. As drivers, computers have far fewer of these. Computers don’t get in a reckless mood, or get distracted by a passenger, or fall asleep at the wheel, or faddle with the air conditioning. Of course, no system is infallible, but once the technology has sufficiently evolved, autonomous vehicles will be considerably less fallible than their human owners.

That’s not to ignore the false steps along the way. We’ve all seen the horrific Tesla crashes. For the moment, we’re still in the Wright brothers stages of autonomy, and it will take several evolutionary jumps to get to anything resembling acceptable safety. Yet those jumps are happening at a faster and faster rate.

Speaking of flight, it’s worth remembering that most of us have sat in a metal cylinder that’s travelling at 500mph, five miles above the ground — with autopilot running the whole show for hours.

2. Urban streets could be transformed.

In cities, vast numbers of residential streets are lined with parallel strips of parked cars. In fact, the average UK car is parked for 96% of the time,  clogging the roads we live on with tonnes of inert metal.

Autonomous cars, together with ride-sharing services, could offer an alternative. Imagine living in a city where getting to your destination is as simple as tapping your app and waiting for your shared, driverless vehicle to whisk you away. More direct than public transport and cheaper than taxis, this system could replace millions of cars currently used as urban runarounds. In fact, it might lead to a huge drop in car ownership, where Mobility as a Service becomes the default option.

For some urbanites, parked cars are a visual blight, adding nothing to the spaces we live in. Autonomous ride-sharing may just bring that to an end.

Plus, if you do hang on to your own car, you’ll have a lot more parking space.

3. Greater independence for elderly and disabled people.

For many of the 14.1 million disabled people in the UK, getting from A to B represents a significant challenge. Public transport can be patchy or a nightmare to negotiate, and driving may not be an option. In fact, government figures tell us that:

60% of those aged 17-64 years with a disability held a full driving licence compared with 78% of people without a disability.

Meanwhile, regardless of disability, older people can struggle with aspects of driving. In particular, elderly drivers tend to limit their risk by sticking to familiar routes and avoiding driving at night. That may keep them safer but it means that their vehicles can no longer give them the same freedoms.

For both groups, fully autonomous cars could provide hugely increased independence and richer, less restricted lives.

4. Reduced pollution, lower carbon footprint?

When they arrive, autonomous cars will be like that annoying kid at school, the one who could do absolutely everything better than you. They will find the best routes, the nearest parking spaces and they’ll drive more smoothly and safely than you could. And one more crucial thing — they will do it more efficiently. Autonomous vehicles will drive with optimal, computer-precise economy. What’s more, they will talk to each other and to traffic infrastructure, which could mean goodbye to those endless stop-start motorway tailbacks. And if ride-sharing becomes a thing, each vehicle will be used far more frequently, giving us far more miles for each car produced.

From an environmental point of view, all this sounds a no-brainer: driverless cars promise lower life-shortening emissions and a drastically reduced carbon footprint. Yet environmental and transport experts caution that this assumption conceals a bucketload of ‘what ifs’. What if, for example, transport gets so easy that people travel far more? What if no one uses public transport, a far greener option to even the best ride-sharing? What if commuters live further away, because now they can work on the journey? And what if the energy cost of all that data being sent and received, which will be truly stupendous, outweigh the efficiency savings?

So by our reckoning, autonomous cars score three solid hits and a ‘maybe’. Is that enough to outweigh their disadvantages? Join us next time.

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