It might seem more befitting of a utopian future, but self-driving vehicles are closer to our roads than you think. But with the risks associated with this technology and a complete change coming in how we get from A to B, what are cities doing to prepare for this impending introduction?

UnSUBURBIA has looked at the impact autonomous vehicles could have on our roads and whether society will be accepting of these driverless vehicles.

The birth and boom of the autonomous idea

The concept of autonomous vehicles isn’t just an idea of modern-day times. Reports suggest that as far back as the 1920s engineers were trying to create vehicles that could drive themselves, and promising trials took place in the 1950s to try and bring the ideas off the drawing board and into reality.

In the era of technology and innovation, however, driverless cars have come on leaps and bounds. Nearly all of the major car manufacturers are investing into the creation of autonomous cars, and internet overlord Google also dipped its toe into the market. Originally developed in secret in 2009, Waymo undertook 300,000 miles without any incidents and in 2014, Google released a fully autonomous vehicle without any pedals or a steering wheel.

The practicality of autonomous vehicles is a relatively self-explanatory – the car drives itself and responds to the different situations which may occur whilst on the road. However, the vehicles are set at different levels of automation. For instance, the SAE autonomy scale gives the categorisation of the cars on a scale of zero to five; zero being not automated at all, and five being fully automated.

Yet with the mass development of the technology and driverless cars comes serious incidents. Testing has brought casualties and fatalities due to a lack of responsiveness from the vehicles. This is where the reservations still are around having this these vehicles on our roads.

On the other hand, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders believes the technology could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives in the next decade.

A new way of ‘hailing a cab’

There’s no questioning the impact Uber has had on society – it’s pioneered an innovative approach to private sector transportation. But the company isn’t happy with the already industry-leading trail it has blazed for itself. Uber wants to take it to the next level.

Based on the same premise of how you currently book an Uber taxi, instead of a ‘manned’ taxi arriving at your pick-up location, an autonomous vehicle would chauffeur you to your destination. In 2018 alone, the company spent $457 million on its autonomous vehicle-focused Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) and other tech initiatives – this isn’t just a flash in the plan, Uber is resting the future of its company on driverless cars.

Working in partnership with Volvo, the transportation network company has developed its own self-driving technology which is now into its third generation.

Previous editions saw the technology being added to Volvo vehicles post-manufacturing, but the two firms are now working more harmoniously, and the self-driving technology is being added to the new XC90 SUV during build. The cars will still feature a steering wheel and pedals, whilst multiple back-up systems have been built in meaning if there is any form of fault, the vehicle will be brought to an immediate stop.

Uber’s original plan was to have 75,000 autonomous vehicles on the road by 2019, and operating a driverless taxi service in 13 cities by 2022, according to court papers. However, these plans were foregone due to a tragic accident during testing. A pedestrian was killed when stepping out in front of the autonomous vehicle as it didn’t even slow down, let alone stop. This was caused by Uber disabling the emergency braking system on the Volvo to “reduce potential for erratic vehicle behaviour”.

Despite this tragedy, Uber and Volvo have both confirmed that after strenuous testing, the latest generation is much safer thanks to the inclusion of more ‘fail-safes’.

The concept of getting in a taxi that doesn’t have a driver seems farfetched, but is this the best way to introduce autonomous vehicles to our roads? A taxi completes a large number of journeys each day, compared to the average commuter car, so perhaps rolling these vehicles out may be the right approach to take.

How would our infrastructure need to change?

Automated vehicles have been heralded as the answer to reduce congestion and allow traffic to flow freely – something which is applicable to, and can be achieved on, highways and motorways. However, in urban surrounds, the idea of changing the road systems to suit autonomous cars is much trickier.

The main issue of autonomous cars is that during the concept’s infancy, autonomous cars will be the minority compared the majority of manned vehicles, meaning very little can change. Due to force of habits, a car being driven by a person will act differently in situations to a self-driving car – autonomous vehicles wait until they see a space to move into which initially may cause a build up of traffic, rather than prevent it.

Until there’s a more widespread use of autonomous vehicles, research is being undertaken into road layouts and signage for the driverless cars to understand and take the right action to reduce the impact on traffic.

There is one huge limitation with autonomous vehicles though which could massively impact infrastructure. Currently around the world, line markings on roads differ from country to country – yet the driverless cars are only developed to understand one type of marking, as it stands. This would mean one of two things: either investment needs to be made into innovating the driverless technology, so it understands all types of road layouts and markings on a global scale, or a standardised line marking system has to be introduced.

Can autonomous vehicles really become the chosen method of travel?

Although the concept could be revolutionary for our cities in changing how we move around, the issues still remain the same – society is still unwilling to buy into autonomous vehicles.

In research undertaken by the Brookings Institution, only 21 per cent of participants said they would be willing to get inside an autonomous car, compared to the 65 per cent who outright said they would not. Of those who would get in the driverless car, only 12 per cent of these would be ‘very likely’ to do so, and 9 per cent ‘somewhat likely’ – hardly the sort of statistics that scream out “we want autonomy, and we want it now”.

But, as mentioned with Uber taxis, driverless vehicles are a situation-based entity. The likes of taxis and public transport could benefit from autonomy, improving safety and efficiencies. For day-to-day individual commuter journeys, autonomy may not be the best bet – hence the reservations – yet for public and private transportation companies, driverless could be a way of bolstering service performance.

But although society may not be fully sold on the idea, key stakeholder and governments are. In the UK, it’s believed that self-driving cars can help boost the economy by £62bn by 2030, whilst over £1bn has been invested into research, development and communications to enable a transition into an autonomous transport offering. In the future, it may not be the case of having the choice of autonomous vehicles – the decision may have already been made for you.

UnSUBURBIA says

It’s easy to see why the idea of autonomous cars is an attractive one. It offers those in need of transportation a hassle-free way of getting from A to B – the driver can now become the passenger. For longer distance journeys especially, it becomes an appealing proposition.

Yet safety is, and will remain, a huge factor in a widespread implementation of these vehicles. What happens if there is spate of incidents during the initial phases of introducing driverless cars? Society speaks its mind through its actions, so don’t be surprised if there’s limited take up in the initial instance if these problems arise.