Autonomous Ubers - a highway to heaven or hell?

EDITOR'S BLOG: The robots will surely win out but autonomy will bring its own problems.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 21 Sep 2016

Uber was testing its first driverless cars in Pittsburgh last week: weird vehicles that combine the appearance of a police squad car from Robocop and that of a Russian Scud missile launcher. The Uber Ford Fusions have large a rotating laser sensor on the roof, as well as front, back and side-mounted sensors which detect obstacles in close proximity. There are an additional 20 cameras that watch for braking vehicles, crossing pedestrians, traffic lights, and signage. There are cameras and sensors to collect mapping data (it’s all about the data these days); and roof- and trunk-mounted antennae to provide GPS positioning and wireless capabilities. The whole techo palaver provides a reminder how clever, perceptive, anticipatory and multi-tasking humans must be to ever pass their driving test. One dreads to think what might be on the optional extras list.

Self-driving cars came come a long way since it first emerged that Google was working on a prototype. As President Obama mused in a column yesterday, in his seven and a half years in charge they have 'gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live.' This week his government will issue its first formal guidelines to regulate the nascent technology. 

Although its current drivers tooling around cities on Surge aren’t likely to be too thrilled about this, Uber clearly sees autonomous driving as the future. And what disrupter can ever resist the call of the future? ‘Of course, we can’t predict exactly what the future will hold,’ says the company. ‘But we know that self-driving Ubers have enormous potential to further our mission and improve society: reducing the number of traffic accidents, which today kill 1.3 million people a year; freeing up the 20 percent of space in cities currently used to park the world’s billion plus cars; and cutting congestion [really?], which wastes trillions of hours every year.’

I was thinking about trillions of hours of waste (not too mention angst) as I was carefully piloting the ageing family people carrier around the crowded streets of south London on Saturday afternoon. In the Brave New World of ferrying around one could bung the kids into the automated pod to transport them to their various weekend activities and stay at home with a book. A number of things about driverless cars fascinate me. As I struggled to negotiate a short cut across Clapham Common, for example, I wondered how would automatons cope with the regular ritual of backing-up when faced by a vehicle coming in the other direction where the space is too narrow for both contenders to pass? Are they programmed to be more polite and civilised than most human drivers and always give way? In which case they are going to be pretty slow reaching their destinations around my manor.

And then there’s the safety thing. It’s worth noting, by the way, that Uber has decided to select 100 huge and robust Volvos later in the year to replace the Ford Fusions currently on the fleet. Volvo makes a big thing about its focus on safety and has a mission to be responsible for no road deaths at all by 2020.

Read more: How Addison Lee is keeping Uber honest

Autonomous cars make many people nervous and the fatal accident suffered by Tesla in California while testing the beta version of their autopilot system did not help matters. It ran into the side of a lorry. There are many whose attitude towards driving remains that it was a really good idea that the first non-horse drawn vehicles had to be proceeded by a guy walking in front and waving a flag. Tesla has stated that this was the first fatality in 130 million miles of its cars driving themselves, whereas in the US the average for road deaths is one every 94 million miles. In the developing world it’s far worse than that.

But my bet is that the automatons will win. In the end it’s likely that the whole road system for cars will become automated and driving yourself will probably be impossible. As a human behind the wheel even the most skilled drivers will be too fallible to compete. You will never be able to make the right decisions as well as the software in the cloud. The fees to insure petrol heads who still insist on going it alone with be so high that nobody will bother. Track days at racing circuits will boom as the freedom to put the pedal to the metal yourself and grip a steering wheel becomes a prized novelty.

The only way the whole system becomes completely efficient would be if all the routing and spacing decisions were assigned to the great Hal in the cloud. So roads become like an automated tube line where all the driver does is open and close the doors. This is going to bore and frustrate some people but, in theory anyway, ten mile tailbacks on the M6 heading would become much more of a rarity than they are now (although total gridlock in city centres will still be a risk - too much traffic is too much traffic, self driving or otherwise).

But what if some people are not content with travelling at the same speed as everyone else? They resist being one of the pack in a long stream of cars evenly spaced all going at 56 mph. There is bound to be a market element introduced: you pay more to go faster, as occurs with broadband and as you used to when travelling from London to New York by Concorde.

You could see travel going one of two ways. In the perfect world, we might see cars integrated with other transportation methods in a perfectly efficient and harmonious utility. No more infuriating traffic lights. There will be no more accidents - car on car, car on bike, car on pedestrian. Car parks can all be abolished or converted into low cost housing.

Of course, it might not play out this way. Someone is going to have to pay for all this technology. One could make the argument that we’ll see dual-class systems, the wealthy whizzing along rapid commuter lanes, and the commuter belt itself go farther and farther away from the middle of cities.

And, finally, what about already cash-strapped local authorities so reliant on the revenue from speeding and parking fines plus parking permits. If autonomous cars keep moving and never commit any driving sins and misdemeanours that will all be gone. With what that will do the council tax bill, none of us will be able to afford cars anyway.


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