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Are driverless vehicles and the concept of perpetual motion inevitable?

A personal perspective from Former Transport Minister and Strategic Advisor to Clearview Traffic Group, Dr Stephen Ladyman

Cars on infinite road curtailed in the form of

The Foresight Team, created by Sir David King when he was the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor, set out in 2006 to explore how science and technology could, over the next 50 years, bring intelligence into infrastructure in order to meet a growing demand for transport, support economic growth, and ensure that the transport solutions of the future would be environmentally sustainable.

The team suggested that the way the world would look 50 years hence might well depend upon the extent to which we choose to develop environmentally low impact transport solutions and the level to which we accept intelligent transport technology.

One of the four broad scenarios they postulated for the way the world might look in 2056 was called 'Perpetual Motion' and it envisaged a world in which economic growth has fuelled the demand for transport, we have developed sustainable technologies, and we have opened ourselves up to the use of intelligent infrastructure and transport solutions.

In this scenario, people are constantly 'on the move' and always connected, business is done 'on the go' even in personal vehicles and, in this non-stop economy, there are no limits to how much we travel or to our access to information.

In this scenario, driverless vehicles are very much part of our future.

Arguably they will be the only form of personal transport available rather than a 'choice'. We can debate whether we are doing enough to develop low emission, low impact energy sources to deliver on this vision – but there can be little argument that information technology, intelligent control systems, and the development of information-based services are developing at a pace that will make it feasible from the technological point of view and even if we cannot quite put a 'fully functioning, go anywhere and respond to all circumstances, driverless vehicle' onto the roads today, Moore's Law (which implies computer power doubles every 18 months) would suggest that soon we will be able to do so.

Of course, to paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm, a character in Jurassic Park: 'Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should'.

Is the world of perpetual motion desirable? What could driverless vehicles bring us and how much effort should we be putting into their development?

Perpetual Motion was a scenario based on society being open to – and accepting of – intelligent transport solutions: are we now (or will we be) that genuinely open to such a radical development as driverless cars?

And let us not underestimate the challenges facing those who would advocate the implementation of driverless vehicles.

We do not have a blank sheet of paper on which we can design a personal transportation system from scratch. We are not, unless we restrict them to controlled zones in new towns or dedicated lanes, going to be able to implement driverless vehicles in an environment that is entirely occupied by other driverless vehicles all equipped with the technology needed to detect each other's presence and respond to events in a predictable manner.

The world in which driverless cars must operate, if they are to become widespread, is a world in which, at least in the early years, they will be in the minority in a vehicle fleet that is dominated by the legacy of vehicles driven by fallible, panic-prone humans, interspersed with cyclists who think that traffic signals are merely advisory and pedestrians who are determined to take the shortest route between two points irrespective of hazards.

Of course, when we discuss driverless vehicles we should not only have in our minds eye a completely autonomous, driverless vehicle.

Much nearer on the development horizon are assisted driving technologies that can be used with conventional vehicles and even retrofitted to the legacy fleet and which can dramatically improve road safety and potentially help us make better use of road space.

Some of these technologies are already in use, Anti Lock Braking Systems and Electronic Stability Control are both technologies that help to overcome the limitations of human control, and both are now almost standard in new vehicles; cruise control, parking sensors and sensors that detect vehicles drifting out of their lanes are becoming common; and self-parking technologies are available in Lexus, Toyota, Volvo, Ford, Kia, Volkswagen and Skoda vehicles.

Other assisted driving technologies are a little further off but have massive potential.

One of these is often called the 'electronic tow bar'. A technology that would allow vehicles to drive in close convoy, one behind the other, on motorways and dual carriageways, taking up much less space as only a few feet would need to be left between vehicles, and allowing the driver to rest or do other things without worrying about driving.

But whether vehicles are genuinely driverless, or deploy assisted driving technologies, going forward will not just be a matter of technology, but will also be determined by the psychology of drivers/passengers and our willingness to trust and accept the technology.

I once sat in a test vehicle equipped by a system that could detect obstacles in its path, take control if the driver did not respond correctly and apply the brakes to prevent collision.

As the vehicle hurtled towards a stationary vehicle and the test driver 'ignored' the audible warnings of the approaching obstacle my faith in technology was genuinely tested, the system kicked in, applied the brakes and brought us to a halt from 60mph with about three feet to spare.

Could I bring myself to relax in a vehicle that was part of an electronic tow bar convoy just three feet from the vehicle in front and three feet from the one behind while we do 70mph along a motorway? I assume that eventually I will get used to it, but I won't be in a hurry to try.

We should also not overlook politics in all this. Autonomous driverless vehicles are most likely to be first deployed as taxis in controlled areas of town and city centres.

I can see them working well in this context, a four wheeled version of Boris Bikes.

Taxi drivers, on the other hand, will have a different view of them as they take their business and taxi drivers are, in many towns, organised and militant – as we saw in London in the dispute over the use of the Uber app.

Undoubtedly, road transport by the second half of the century will be very different than today and my prediction is that driverless vehicles and assisted driving technologies will have a big part to play.

In the short term, however, whilst these technologies emerge from conceptual ideas to infancy and perhaps into adolescence there is a much bigger role for more mature technology managing the traffic of today.

We have only scratched the surface of what could be achieved by measuring traffic flows in real time and then using sophisticated predictive models to control traffic signals, provide information to drivers, mass transit systems and the emergency services and, thereby, optimise traffic flows.

Until driverless vehicles and assisted driving technologies mature the benefit cost ratio massively favours investment in intelligent infrastructure rather than just intelligent vehicles and, let's not forget, it will be necessary to first deploy extensively intelligent infrastructure in order to create an environment in which driverless cars can operate.

To find out more about how Clearview Traffic are helping to transform road networks in the UK, please get in touch here.

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