What is interesting is the way that the driverless revolution will transform our urban spaces, and the routes between them. Nearly everything about urban road design is currently to minimise the risk of humans making bad decisions.
Take traffic lights. In a world where every vehicle is controlled by computers vehicles be able to feedthrough junctions faster. No more sitting at traffic lights waiting. The use of traffic lights gradually fades away.. Motorway junction design, roundabouts, urban parking spaces: all of these things could and will be profoundly changed.
Behaviour inside cars.
A driverless vehicle may have people sitting facing each other, with a table in the middle. Or the front windscreen could show you all a movie while you are travelling. Or there might be self-driving cars configured as sleepers, so you can go to sleep in one city, and wake up in another, while remaining in an enclosed private space.
For the last century the interior design of the car has been entirely around one person with feet on pedals and hands on a wheel, with their eyes to the road and their need to have all the controls within easy reach. However, if you don’t need a human in charge, then one can rearrange the layout of the seats .
Driverless cars are an engineer’s dream. At last, a technology that promises to remove the human factor from the traffic system.
It is humans, after all, whose errors contribute to 75% of road crashes, who introduce undesirable randomness into the mathematical simplicity of traffic flows, and who have been characterised as “monkey drivers” with slow reaction times and short attention spans.
If only we could eliminate the human factor, we would have cities swirling with safe, efficient cars whizzing us to our destinations. Correct?
Wrong. As long as there are humans in the transport system we cannot ignore the human factor. To do so grossly overestimates the promised benefits of driverless cars and underestimates the negative impacts they will have on our traffic networks and society.
Think like a human
First of all, there are the immediate technological hurdles. At high speeds this is actually relatively straightforward as interactions on freeways are already effectively “vehicle-to-vehicle”.
We are travelling too fast on a freeway to communicate at a human level, so we rely on technology to do much of the work for us, like using indicators to hazard Lights. Removing human error is plausible and beneficial.
But all of that changes at low speeds, where drivers have to interact at a human level. Such as when making eye contact with another driver, giving the nod to a pedestrian, or waving to a cyclist to let them go ahead.
Recognising Human Gestures
How will an automated vehicle sense if a pedestrian standing near the crossing is waiting to cross or chatting on the phone? How will it process regional differences in body language, such as Google Car’s confusion over a “track-standing” cyclist?
Google is already training its cars to recognise a cyclist’s hand signals, but we still have a long way to go.
Similarly, without human gestures, how will the rest of us learn how to anticipate the actions of driverless cars? Recent research suggests that we don’t yet know.
Making humans comply
One of the issues with the utopian vision promised by driverless cars is cities where parking is converted into parks, or intersections where traffic lights are not even needed.This is due to the fact it can only work if 100% of the vehicle fleet is automatic and individual ownership makes way for a fleet of shared pay-as-you-go taxis. But how many people will actually opt in to this vision of the future? If you cant trust the technology, if you get motion sickness, if you enjoy driving classic cars (or motorbikes), or if you just cant fathom the idea of being driven by a car that always follows the speed limit and never jumps the queue. Then a driverless car may not be for you.
In essence, even if we do reach 100% car automation, we still cannot ignore humans. Smart automated intersections promise to remove the need for traffic lights and allow twice as much traffic to use the roads. But how will non-automated cyclists approach these intersections? How will pedestrians cross them? We can reach a stage where the road safety benefits of driverless cars are so blatantly evident that non-automated cars are made illegal. And we wonder why humans were ever trusted to drive. But until that day we will be living in a messy world of haves and have-nots.
No more car ownership
Then there’s the issue with sharing a driverless car fleet, claiming driverless cars will mean we move beyond individual ownership. It is unlikely that car-sharing will be economical or desirable for you under some circumstances. For example, if you live in the suburbs or a rural area it will prove difficult to car-share with others. If you have one or more child seats or store and carry goods in your car there wont be enough space to accommodate others. Similarly, if you want to have a say in the style of car you ride in, then it is unlikely that car-sharing will be desirable for you.
Gaming the system
If driverless cars can be owned by individuals, it can open the door to gaming the system. Humans have an innate ability to make any system work for their individual benefit. Thus undermining the very congestion benefits promised by driverless cars. It’s also true that the more attractive you make travelling in driverless cars, the more people will do it. If you can catch up on emails during your hour-long drive, why bother to take the train? Although some of the tactics that might remove the hassle from driverless travel could also worsen traffic. Allowing driverless cars to run without passengers opens up an enormous potential for exploitation.
Why bother to find a parking space if your car can circle the block by itself while you shop?
Fewer crashes mean fewer jobs in car repair and insurance, while compliant cars mean fewer parking tickets and speeding fines hence reducing government revenue. Driverless cars will also threaten the jobs of people who drive trucks, buses, taxis and Uber cars.
So despite all the hype, promise and predictions, no one really knows what the future of driverless cars will be. But as long as humans are leaving their homes, we cannot ignore the human factor.