Just a few months ago, the first truly autonomous vehicle was tested on the streets of Milton Keynes. With software developed by Oxford University’s Robotics Institute, the LUTZ pathfinder marks the first foray into a future of driverless cars. But with a top speed of just 15mph after 18 months of planning, one has to wonder whether this snail pace progress is enough for us to be a global leader in an industry potentially worth £900bn by 2025.
In 2015, over 1,700 people were killed in traffic-related incidents, with the total number of injuries at over 180,000. The Department of Transport has shown that whilst child pedestrian safety has been worse than the European average, steady improvements have been made in the past decade. But there are behavioural differences as well; children in Britain are more likely to cross a road with no marked crossing place, and are less likely to be accompanied by an adult compared to children in France. With all the talk of whether the government could or should intervene in regards to public health issues, such as curbing obesity with a sugar tax, vehicular accidents are seen as something uncontrollable, merely altered by speed limits and an abundance of traffic lights.
Autonomous vehicular travel, the ability for personal transport with little to no assistance from a human passenger, has the ability to change the way we see transportation. By communicating with other vehicles, it can to make precise movements, reduce the ‘phantom jam’ caused by over-breaking, and reduce the need for traffic lights. Ultimately, the goal of autonomous vehicles is to remove human error. The miscommunication between drivers, or the unpredictability of cyclists and animals. An autonomous vehicle could predict a crash before it even happens, as seen recently when a Tesla vehicle used its radar to detect a sudden stop from an unseen vehicle and thus immediately applied the emergency brake.
Such protection of lives leads to a remarkable issue. If less people die from car accidents, then there are less organs available for donation. As a result, more people could die because less people are dying! And that leads to another inevitable breakthrough; one of a medical kind.
Printed organs, the process of layering and integrating cells in order to create fully functional body parts is seen as a promising replacement to the already struggling organ-donation system. It is therefore vital that the two are bolstered in tandem with one another, and with the former life-sciences minister heading the Policy Unit at Number 10, what’s required now is a bit more enthusiasm from the Transport Secretary.
The environmental impact is also not to be ignored. By choosing the most fuel-efficient route, as well as a potential to decrease the weight of the vehicle, and the ability to reduce drag by driving closer to one another, all of these contribute to greater fuel efficiency. However, there is a possibility that the ease in which self-driving cars are managed could result in a dramatic increase in the frequency that they are used. The ability to potentially multitask, study or watch TV could also deter people from taking public transport.
If automation is inevitable, then it is up to our government to invest in the infrastructure and education behind these technologies. Our exit from the European Union is perfect timing to foster international partnerships and research with the likes of the US and the Four Asian Tigers.
Roadblocks will be met, from the refurbishment of rules and regulations, to the reactionary media in response to the occasional death. Despite being expected and still far less common than with a driver, public perception will remain a sensitive issue. Ultimately, we will succeed when the technology is thrust upon us. After all, it was the pioneer of the mass produced manual vehicle who allegedly uttered the adage:
“If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
And now is the time to tell the people to get their hands off the wheel.