What the world could be like when we all have driverless vehicles

There has been much in the press these last few years about driverless cars. Enough that we know that they are coming at some point in the future.

Most of the coverage has focused on how they might work, what they may look like and so on but there is a more important consideration — what will our world be like when we all have them? It’s worth thinking about because the driverless car has the potential to completely transform our towns and cities and the way we live.

There are certainly huge hurdles to be overcome before driverless cars become mainstream but let’s look slightly further ahead and imagine what the world might be like when every car on the roads is driverless. So put your skepticism to one side for now and accept that driverless cars will work and that there are no great obstacles to their mass adoption by the motoring public. What next?

The impact on car design

The first noticeable difference will be the cars themselves. The driverless cars that are being developed at the moment are mostly like regular cars but with lots of technological extras bolted on. All sorts of cameras and sensors feed information to a central computer giving it a clear picture of everything that is happening around the vehicle. It can then marry this up with mapping and traffic information to plot the best route. The largely redundant driver sits behind the steering wheel watching it turn this way and that, and keeping an eye on the road ahead in case they need to intervene; which generally they don’t.

It is in the nature of technology that things continually improve. Problems get solved, bugs get fixed and better ways are found for doing everything. Whatever the technical issues being faced in the driverless cars being prototyped just now, you can be sure that they will be ironed out. The end result will be an automated vehicle that will drive better than any human. Always. And it won’t get tired, or drunk, or distracted or lost.

Once we’re happy that it’s best to leave these things to the machine, there will be no need for a steering wheel or any of the other controls that currently surround the driver. And we won’t need to look where we’re going. The front seats in a driverless car could face backwards so that everyone in the car can face each other like they would do in any other room. A four seater car might have a table in the middle or some screens so that the passengers can play games, watch films, eat, work or even talk to each other. If you want to look at the road ahead a screen will show the display from one of the car’s many cameras.

Your electronic chauffeur could be the most considerate driver imaginable, never braking or accelerating sharply, and taking every bend at just the right speed so that nothing slides across your table and no drinks are spilt. While it might not be smooth enough for you to cook food inside your vehicle, once the food is prepared it should be easy enough to eat it on the move.

One of the great things about life when all cars are driverless is that there won’t be any crashes. OK, there will be hardly any crashes. What won’t happen is vehicles bashing into each other or pedestrians, saving about 1.3 million lives a year. And if cars aren’t ever going to crash then they don’t need to be fitted with seatbelts, headrests and airbags and the occupants don’t need to be strapped into place.

Travel in a driverless car will be more like going by train. Some trains are sleeper trains and there’s no reason why a driverless car couldn’t be fitted out to let the passengers lie down and get some sleep. This seemingly small change could revolutionise travel. Going on holiday by car could all be done overnight with the vehicle doing the donkey work for you. If you left London at eight o’clock in the evening and traveled through the night averaging a sedate 50 mph, then by the time you’ve finished your breakfast you could be in Berlin or the Alps. On longer journeys you could do the travelling at night while spending your days visiting places of interest.

If cars are never going to crash then they don’t need to be built quite so robustly as they are today which means that they could be lighter and therefore cheaper and more fuel efficient. This, in turn, means that a much smaller engine could be used. This could be taken to extremes. Forget the campervan-style vehicle taking a family of four to Spain with a fortnight’s worth of luggage, and imagine what would be needed instead to transport an individual from one part of town to another in safety and comfort. What this boils down to is little more than a chair in a weatherproof box with sufficient horsepower to get up to 30 mph. It would need nothing stronger than a mountain bike frame and so could probably get by on solar power driving a battery, pretty much zero carbon transport. Something along these lines would not be legal on the roads at the moment and you’d feel very vulnerable traveling around in one if it were. But in the future when no-one’s going to bump into you?

Mass unemployment

The concept of driverless vehicles is not good news for everyone. There are about 250,000 taxi drivers in the UK and it’s hard to see how any of them would have a job once driverless cars are the norm. Taxis may still exist, but their drivers probably won’t.

It could be a similar story for truck drivers. There are over 400,000 trucks in the UK delivering goods around the country. If they can go driverless too — and the trucking companies would love to stop paying all those salaries — then that’s a huge number of drivers out of work.

There are around 40,000 bus drivers who could also be redundant and there are any number of van drivers. Now, a lot of van drivers don’t just transport goods or people around they also transport themselves and their tools and skills so it can’t be assumed that a job would be lost for each van that gets automated, and that’s something that applies to trucks as well. With all these delivery vehicles you can’t always get rid of the driver and then have no-one to unload things at the other end.

Whichever way you look at it though, driverless vehicles will put a lot of people out of work. And what will become of all the traffic police, driving instructors, painters of yellow lines, constructors of traffic lights, speed cameras and road signs? New jobs will doubtless be created but far fewer than those that will be lost.

Platooning

The way in which driverless vehicles go about their business will be very different to the human approach and that will make the flow of traffic so much more efficient. The driverless cars being prototyped at the moment use hugely complex software to plot their way through a world that is very alien to them. They have to plan for and anticipate the movements not just of other vehicles but of all the pedestrians and cyclists, dogs and livestock as well as unexpected hazards like floods, roadworks and so on. The end result is a car that gets driven much as it would be by a human driver.

But when all the other vehicles are automated too, driverless vehicles will be able to do something we can’t, which is to communicate with every other vehicle near them. And that makes a world of difference.

When we’re driving we know when the car in front is braking because its red lights come on and the distance between our vehicles gets smaller. It usually only takes us a fraction of a second to start braking too. But driverless cars will know instantaneously when the car in front starts braking because they can pass messages to each other electronically. So the concept of a safe braking distance between cars goes out of the window. A driverless car won’t leave the recommended two seconds gap between it and the car in front; it will be jammed up against the car in front, right on its bumper. With all those gaps between vehicles closed up, traffic doesn’t need to take up as much room.

The result would be long lines of cars on the motorways and dual carriageways looking for all the world like a modern day train, but without the buffet car. These trains would be continually forming and reforming as cars leave or join at junctions. Maybe some trains would go faster than others because their drivers had paid a premium. These lines of cars would also run side by side much closer together than on a present day road. This would be possible with computer controlled cars which would need much less margin for error than a human driver. This would mean more lanes of traffic on motorways and dual carriageways and would also mean traffic could move closer to the middle of the road on normal roads leaving more room for pedestrians and cyclists.

Long lines of cars jammed nose to tail like this are called platoons and they’re not a new idea. They offer two distinct advantages. The first is obviously one of space. If you look down from above onto a line of slow moving traffic you’ll notice that there are big gaps between vehicles. Platoons will reduce congestion simply by taking up less space on the roads.

The second advantage of platooning is one of fuel economy. The most economical way to drive your car just happens to be so close to the car in front that your bumpers are touching. The reason for this is air resistance. Once you’re travelling over 30 mph, the biggest force slowing down your vehicle is air resistance, and it’s a force that increases with the square of speed. So at 60 mph the drag effect is four times that at 30 mph. But if you’re tucked in behind another vehicle, it shields you from the wind and so your air resistance is greatly reduced and so is your fuel use. Try and drive like that today and you’ll get arrested but your robot chauffeur is designed to do so. The reason it will be so safe is that a driverless car will be in continual communication with all other nearby cars. It will start to brake or accelerate at exactly the same time as the car in front.

If driverless cars communicate with all other nearby vehicles then they can use the road much more efficiently. If nothing is coming round the next corner then a platoon of cars would be able to take the corner much wider, using what we currently think of as both sides of the road. The benefit here is reduced cornering forces which means that the corner can be taken at a higher speed. Apart from getting you to your destination more quickly this also means that vehicles don’t have to slow down and accelerate so much which makes them more efficient.

The concept of fixed lanes on motorways, dual carriageways and in towns could be a thing of the past. Already there are “tidal flow” lanes on certain busy sections of multi-lane roads. Typically these are on pinch points leading in and out of major cities, such as on bridges and tunnels where traffic on some of the central lanes can be reversed at times of day to suit the flow. WIth driverless cars the direction of flow could be controlled as and when needed.

Anticipation

A major expense in fuel use comes in accelerating. A short urban journey involves endless stops and starts which is why you use more fuel pootling around town than you do cruising along the motorway. If you drew a graph of your speed around town at the moment it would look like a profile of the Himalayas — an endless series of peaks and valleys.

Having driverless cars in communication with all the other cars around them could provide a solution to this problem. Rather than have traffic lights at junctions, driverless cars will be able to negotiate with all the nearby cars as they approach a junction so that all the cars will know exactly where they’re going to be and can adjust their speeds to accommodate each other’s needs. The result will be cars criss-crossing junctions without stopping or colliding. It will look like organised chaos.

It may be that the average speed of cars around town won’t be much quicker than now but the way they do it will be very different. Long chains of driverless cars will drift around towns at a fairly constant speed rather than all the individual acceleration and deceleration that happens today. As well as being safer and using less fuel it will make life in towns a great deal quieter.

The change in the way we use our cars

There is a big difference between driving a car and having someone do it for you. When we’re driving, many like the idea of fast cars that overtake easily and handle well. Some like the roar from the exhaust of a powerful engine and delight in all the technology used in making a car go quicker.

As passengers our needs are different. We want a comfortable ride and we don’t want to be thrown around at high speed because that might spill the coffee. Yes, we might enjoy the one-off experience of being driven round a race-track at the limit of a car’s capability, but it’s not how we’d choose to commute. Speed is out, comfort is in, and car design will change to reflect this.

Convenience will also be a big factor in how we use our driverless cars. You’ll no longer have to worry about parking because your car will drop you off at the door of wherever you’re heading and then go and sort out the parking by itself. When you need it again you will just summon it using an app on your phone.

Even car parks will be more efficient. They will become human free zones where cars can wait until they’re called for. Without people around there will be no need to leave a gap between vehicles to open and close doors making it possible to squeeze a lot more cars into the same space. Cars could also block each other in, safe in the knowledge that when one of them has to leave, the cars around it will shift about to make space for it to get out.

Town centres or beauty spots that are currently blighted by parked cars could benefit by having people dropped off at the door in their cars which then clear off to park out of sight.

Always being a passenger means that it will be possible to drive when otherwise incapable. This will clearly be a benefit for those who can’t drive through infirmity or disability, useful when we have such an ageing population. It also means we will be able to drive when we’re tired or asleep or drunk.

Changes to towns and cities

A driverless car will know exactly where it is allowed to go, when it can go and how fast. It won’t need telling and it won’t break the rules. If all vehicles are driverless then there’s no need for traffic lights, road signs, double yellow lines, street lights, speed bumps, speed cameras, crash barriers, traffic calming measures or any of the other paraphernalia of present day roads. If we took all these away, our towns and cities would look very different.

If there was sufficient intelligence in the system controlling the traffic we could also dispense with complex junctions with flyovers and underpasses. The limits here would not be so much about what computers can do, but more about what we as users trust them to do.

Imagine a cross-roads. From the distance you see a platoon of cars heading north to south at 50 mph and you watch them swoop through the crossroads without slowing. Seconds later another platoon of cars arrives heading east to west and that doesn’t slow down either. The computers have done all their calculations correctly and it’s as safe as houses for this to happen endlessly — you could even cross motorways like this which would save money by not having to build flyovers. It’s all very well it being safe — the question is would we trust it to be safe and would we feel safe? I guess it’s something that we would grow used to.

Driverless cars can be trusted to obey the speed limits but they might also be trusted to adjust these limits depending on weather conditions, time of day, volume of traffic around them and so on. A 20 mph limit in a busy town may be fine most of the time but there may be times when 12 mph may be better or quieter times when 23 mph may be more suitable. It would be difficult for human drivers to cope with continually changing speed limits but not a problem for a machine.

Public transport

A well-managed driverless car system would have a major impact on the public transport system. It’s easy to see how taxis and buses could fit into a driverless system even if those vehicles don’t need drivers. However the effect on the railways could be quite severe.

While a high speed train should be quicker city to city, the comparison door to door would be more interesting. At the moment if I make the journey from where I live in West Yorkshire to London, I go by train, I don’t even think about driving. If it’s a business trip then I make sure that any meetings are planned no earlier than late morning and I set off on the first train I can get. I can usually rely on the train to get me there at the right time. Travelling by car could potentially be quicker if I got lucky with the traffic but then again there might be long hold-ups and I could be late for everything — it’s just not a reliable way of doing the journey. Apart from which I would have the hassle of driving round an unfamiliar city and the hassle and expense of parking. Added to which I can work on the train so at the moment it’s a no-brainer; the train is by far the best way to go.

If I were trying to make the same journey in the era of driverless cars though, things would be different. For one thing I could travel down overnight the night before, arriving at 9 in the morning ready to start any meetings. If I needed to carry a lot of stuff with me this wouldn’t be a problem either as I would be taken door to door. To me, this would be a much preferable way to travel.

The experience of travel in a driverless car will be similar to that on a train but without the overcrowding, so will driverless cars be the death of railways? Possibly. If enough of the current rail traffic transferred across to driverless cars then the railways could become uneconomic. The real test would be whether the rail network could carry more passengers and freight if it remained a railway or if it were covered in tarmac to carry driverless vehicles. Some complex mathematical modeling will be needed to work that one out but my money is on the driverless system.

In the light of this, the current UK plans to build a new network of high speed rail links HS2 and HS3 have the potential to be a great waste of money. They could well become obsolete just as they come into service. On a brighter note though, all those old rail routes would make fantastic routes to put driverless cars on. They’re the flattest straightest roads around.

The impact of driverless cars on the airways would obviously be less severe. You can’t drive from continent to continent and neither can a driverless car. Short-haul flights are different though. Would you rather fly from the UK to southern France or Spain like at present or do the journey in a couple of overnight trips with a day spent on the way somewhere interesting and get to your destination with all the luggage needed for your holiday?

Empty cars

What happens when you get out of your car? At the moment, unless you’ve left the handbrake off, very little. In the future though there’s nothing to stop your car from taking itself off. It could drop you off at work or the shops and then wander off to find somewhere to park or to pick up some shopping that you’ve ordered or visit the filling station or get some repairs done. Maybe. But maybe you wouldn’t own a car at all but would be part of a car share scheme. After all, what most cars do most of the time is nothing — they just sit at the side of road causing an obstruction and slowly depreciating. Wouldn’t it be better if we had fewer of them but used them more efficiently?

The downside

There’s always a downside. In the case of driverless cars there are numerous downsides.

If a driverless car makes traveling long distances that much easier because we can do it overnight doesn’t that just mean we’ll all do more of it? If it’s that easy to get to a remote beauty spot because we can travel there overnight, won’t everyone do the same? And if a commute of several hours becomes feasible because we can sleep through it or use some of it to work productively, won’t some of us end up spending far longer in our vehicles than we do at the moment? If it’s feasible to commute to London from the Midlands or Northern England what’s to stop that becoming normal? Won’t that just lead to much more traffic on the roads? It hardly sounds like a bright new future.

Driverless cars hold out the promise of being much cheaper to build and run and we know enough about the laws of supply and demand to predict with some confidence that the result will be far greater use. The promise of driverless cars being able to solve our traffic problems won’t hold true if we’re all using them all of the time. The roads would be properly jammed, destroying any hope of quieter towns and travel free of hold-ups.

The obvious solution would be to manage demand by pricing travel accordingly. Unfortunately that’s precisely the kind of sensible big government approach that we’re not allowed even to consider these days because the markets have to determine everything. Maybe political intelligence will improve at the same speed as vehicle intelligence? There’s always hope.

If a driverless car can be operated by anyone — or even no-one — then what about children? We might be comfortable with the idea of a car transporting our teenage children to school, but how about a car taking an eight year old across the country to meet their relatives? Or a four year old being taken to nursery? How young is too young and how far is too far?

There is a bit of a nightmare scenario too with driverless cars. Let’s suppose that the campervan style model catches on and people can get to and from places by traveling overnight. What would stop that from being a semi-permanent mode of behaviour for some? Let’s say you work in London or somewhere else with expensive housing costs but you’re not on a good wage. A cheaper option could be to live in a campervan and commute in and out of the city each day. It might not be a choice you’d make from preference but from necessity. Maybe along with thousands of others. Would the laybys and country lanes outside the city be filled with the rootless low-paid with nowhere else to go? How would the local communities feel about that?

Opposition

Driverless cars may be of huge benefit to most of society but that doesn’t mean that everyone will welcome them. Those currently employed as drivers might be obvious opponents but their objections won’t be as strong as some other more powerful interests.

The oil industry won’t like the idea of seeing a big drop in demand for its product, so you can imagine how keen they’ll be to point out any deficiencies with driverless cars. At some point a driverless car will be responsible for the death of someone. It doesn’t matter that there are already over 1500 fatalities each year on Britain’s roads (and over a million worldwide) — it’ll be the one caused by a driverless car that will grab the headlines.

When all the vehicles on the road are driverless then they can all cooperate to manage the traffic system between them in an efficient manner as described above. All it needs is a set of rules for them all to follow and an understanding by the computer of where it is and where everyone else is. However, there could be great chaos caused if just a few of the vehicles didn’t behave as expected, for example if some of them weren’t driverless but were being controlled by humans. So for a driverless system to work properly all the vehicles in it need to be computer-controlled. Ouch.

There will be some who will hate the idea of this. No, not just moan a bit about it, I really mean hate. They will come up with all sorts of reasons why they can’t be forced into using a cheaper, safer, more efficient form of transport that is beneficial to everyone. They will find “evidence” that proves that driverless cars are more expensive, dangerous and an intrusion into their civil liberties. They will demand that they should be able to drive their old cars where they like, when they like and may even discover that it is an inalienable right of every citizen to do just that. It’s easy to joke about it but forcing change on people isn’t easy — just ask a politician.

When can I get one?

This isn’t a technology that will arrive overnight. Bits of it are here already. Cars can already park for you and intervene to brake when they see danger before you do.

There are huge technological and legal hurdles to be overcome before a driverless system is prevalent. Expect various features to be rolled out over the coming years with a full system not coming until ooh, it’s hard to say (sticks finger in the air) sometime after 2030?

Until then, drive carefully.