ITC discusses the cars of the future
How will autonomous cars change our travel behaviour?
Manufacturers are rapidly increasing the level of automation in cars, and some have predicted that fully driverless cars will be available for the mass market within the next decade. Such technological advances have the potential not only to change radically car design, but also our travel behaviour. Will we see cars become mobile offices rather than driving machines? Will these changes affect our attitudes towards the car and to other modes of travel, leading perhaps to a renaissance in car travel and gridlock in our cities? And should we be concerned, as the DfT has recently warned, about driverless cars leading to ‘complacency’ and a decline in safety?
To debate this important topic the ITC was delighted to welcome a distinguished panel of senior experts from the industry to a Discussion Evening on 9th May 2017. Introduced by ITC Commissioner and host Professor Peter Jones OBE, over 70 senior guests attended and the subject was introduced through talks from a panel comprising: Professor John Miles, Arup/Royal Academy of Engineering Research Professor at the University of Cambridge; Professor Nick Reed, Academy Director at the Transport Research Laboratory; Paul Piliste, Vehicle Designer at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design; and Steve Gooding, the Director of the RAC Foundation.
Impacts of Autonomous cars – key issues raised by the speakers:
- Professor John Miles discussed the possibilities raised by autonomous vehicles. He suggested that these would profoundly affect our relationship with the car, and that their complexity would increase. He observed that the age of autonomous cars had already begun, and within a decade the majority of controls in a car would be automated. However, he cautioned that autonomous vehicles would be constrained by infrastructure, which adjusts more slowly, although gradually capacity benefits should result on the road network. The factors that made us desire car travel, such as convenience, privacy and comfort would continue, he suggested, and these wants could even be enhanced by autonomous cars. Professor Miles concluded by noting that the time recovery possibility of autonomous cars would make these very attractive, though we could see the emergence of different vehicles for long-distance driving and for urban environments: in the latter case small pods might be more suitable.
- Professor Nick Reed explored the behavioural impacts of automated cars. He explained that the way we spend time in vehicles would change as autonomy and connectivity increase. Concerns included the way in which technology and automation could lead to driver distraction and also that human drivers could potentially ‘bully’ automated vehicles. Simulation tests as part of the GATEway project had not provided evidence that drivers would behave in this way, but fears remained that attitudes could change over time as people understood how automated cars behave and their novelty decreased. Public trials of an automated shuttle have commenced in Greenwich, with Professor Reed suggesting that, after some initial anxiety, participants are relaxed about the experience. Finally, he explained that automation also offered new opportunities for other forms of travel, including for logistics.
- Paul Piliste discussed how vehicle design would change. Paul discussed how many categories of people could benefit from the automated car revolution, from the elderly to working people and the visually impaired. He noted that car design had since Henry Ford been mass market driven and focused on the need for a driver at the front. Driverless technology could permit a radically different design approach based on how different people would want to use their time inside the vehicle. From a design perspective, new opportunities existed from electrification and the removal of a combustion engine, as well as driverless technology and service design. Automation could also change the ownership model of cars, allowing mobility to be truly affordable for mass markets and at the same time safety requirements could alter, permitting the use of new materials in design.
- Steve Gooding focused on the difficulties of predicting future developments. In particular, he observed that there was little clarity about the cost or economic model of automated cars, which made it difficult to predict how they would be used. Noting that taxis already provided an economic alternative to car driving for those who travelled relatively infrequently, plus the benefit of human interaction, he questioned whether automated cars would have quite the effect some predicted. In addition, he pointed out the love that many motorists had both for driving and car ownership, and noted that autonomous vehicles would challenge existing notions of shared and personal space. He also expressed concern about the safety and feasibility of achieving Level 3 automation (eyes off). Steve also observed that we should remain aware of international perspectives, and that the needs of the UK were not the same as markets in other countries which could well prove more influential in driving the technology. He concluded by asking whether automated cars might go the same way as the hover car – a great idea in principle, but still elusive in car showrooms.
Key themes raised in the discussion:
- Concerns remain about the technology and safety dimensions of automation. Some fears were expressed that autonomous cars could be vulnerable to hacking, and required regular updates and maintenance. In addition, concerns were raised how other drivers and road users would interact with autonomous vehicles, potentially testing safety limits. It was pointed out such issues could lead to a reduction in road capacity if such vehicles became excessively risk averse and had to travel very slowly. At the same time, others pointed out that new technology should offer fresh opportunities to improve safety, with additional data to audit accidents.
- We need to consider how road infrastructure might need to change. Questions were asked about the kind of road infrastructure we would need for autonomous cars. It was remarked that uncertainties about the impact of such vehicles made planning ahead difficult. Others noted that if automation led to lower ownership levels, this could create a reduced need for storage and parking of cars in cities, offering new opportunities for urban planning. One guest warned that a high threshold of autonomous vehicle use would be needed to justify infrastructure change.
- How can we safeguard the public interest impacts of autonomous vehicles? A number of delegates asked how the public interest impacts of these vehicles could be addressed. For instance, driverless vehicles could cause result in high unemployment in a sector that is currently a major source of jobs, particularly for those who are low skilled and have less educational attainment. Others questioned what would happen if a rapid rise in car use occurred leading to more congestion in cities. In addition, the sensible management of street space would be important, and it was argued that we must not return to a 1950s planning era where the car was king.
- Economic policy will have a major impact on the take up of automated cars. Many guests noted that economic policy would have a determining role in the success of autonomous cars. Some questioned whether these would just become an extension of Uber, as part of a move towards mobility as a service. Fiscal policy would also have an impact, some noted, and it was observed that the price point of driverless cars would need to fall below conventional cars for there to be significant take up. Operators of fleets would be responsible for much of the maintenance and updating of such vehicles. In addition, it was suggested that new opportunities would emerge for differential pricing in order to manage behaviour and relieve congestion.
- Autonomous cars have the potential to change urban and rural mobility. It was widely observed that autonomous cars could transform mobility. In urban areas, the use of pods and automation could create reduced need for parking spaces, improve safety and reduce emissions. However, there were also concerns that if such cars became cheaper and more convenient they could encourage low occupancy rates and worsen congestion if not managed correctly. In rural areas, where the population is proportionately older than in cities, autonomous vehicles could transform the mobility prospects of the elderly, and also reduce dependency on owning a car, thereby aiding the rural economy. Finally, it was observed that autonomous cars would have distinct advantages in different contexts, and that their attributes might actually suit best the suburban USA where road layouts were less complex than in European cities.