Volvo upped the stakes this month in the race to get driverless cars widely used on public roads:
The project is called ‘Drive Me’ and is a joint initiative between Volvo, the Swedish Transportation Administration, the Swedish Transport Agency, Lindholmen Science Park and Gothenburg local government.
The cars will be used on ‘public roads in everyday driving conditions’ on 50 kilometers of ‘typical commuter arteries, including motorways and frequent queues.’
The project kicks off in 2014 with ‘customer research and technology development’ and will then move into designing a ‘user interface and cloud functionality’ before the first prototype cars are used by members of public.
Think just how quickly driverless cars have developed in the last five years alone – and then think how long it takes to get planning permission, let alone build or fit out, a big public transport project. Public transport plans now should already be factoring in the high likelihood of a near future in which cars no longer need humans to drive them.
Some of the benefits like to accrue from this are brilliant – but do not require policy changes. A further improvement in road safety is likely for, as we have seen in other areas where automated machinery replaces humans in repetitive tasks, computers are more reliable, less sleepy and never drunk. Brilliant news for humanity (road deaths killed more people than genocides during the twentieth century after all), a useful saving for the NHS but not something which much knock-on policy impacts.
Other changes are likely to be more troubling. Think what a significant part of the local economy of some ethnic minority communities in some areas is provided by the minicab trade, for example. As mechanisation (driverless cars) drives out low-skilled workers (minicab drivers) there is no guarantee that the economic transition for those most affected will be smooth or quickly. The long-run benefits to us all may be immense, but as previous such mechanisations have shown, the short-run pain for some can be great.
There will also be a one-off regulatory requirement and opportunity as driverless cars start appearing, to set the rules under which they perform and before new entrenched vested interests and the inertia of history makes change hard. For example, from day one the tax treatment of driverless cars could strongly encourage sharing, so that we move away from the situation where one of the most expensive items in many household’s expenditure is also an item left unused for large parts of the day.
It would make transportation cheaper and greener if cars where shared far more – but that also requires a psychological shift for which there is an opening when a new technology gets introduced.
Those are a mere couple of examples. But more and more it seems to me that transport policies which do not factor in driverless cars will be looking antiquated before the projects they contain are completed.
Of course, the technology will not be flawless, with in particular some new IT security issues, as I pointed out over the summer:
Security problems with the data links into and out of cars being compromised won’t be that far behind.
That’s no criticism of any individual car marker. It’s just the continuing fact of networked life. The only fully secure device is one that is disconnected, turned off and locked away. And smashed to pieces with a hammer for good measure.
Having super-smart, possibly state-sponsored, hackers cracking into cars would bring us a whole new world of remote nefarious control. Imagine the car equivalent of a DDOS attack: jamming a city’s roads by clogging key junctions with remotely hijacked cars. Or the black arts of hijacking and crashing cars deliberately in a four wheel version of drone strikes.
Oh and the fun of finding that your car is running really slooooooooowly after you updated the Norton Anti Car Virus v2.4 and it started hogging all the TomTom’s memory.
Yet just as security problems – even horrendous lack of security at times – didn’t kill mainframes, didn’t kill desktops, didn’t kill the internet or didn’t kill mobile phones, they won’t stop the move to driverless cars.