(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine)
Driven Out of Business?
I’ve been so pre-occupied trying to earn a crust that I’d forgotten all about driverless cars. Recently, the subject was mentioned again in the media, and it seems they’re still being trialled. That’s all we need: more demand for road space – plus the possibility of driverless taxis making 25,000 cab drivers redundant!
The nearest place to London for testing is Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes isn’t far from my home, so I know it well. Actually, I don’t know it well, but I know where it is. Central Milton Keynes is arranged on a rational American-style grid system: instead of horizontal streets and vertical avenues, you have roads prefixed H5, V9, &c. The central roads are broad, dead straight, and – whenever I’ve been there – relatively free of traffic. You couldn’t find a town more unlike London. I get lost every time I go there, as it all looks the same, and every few hundred yards there are roundabouts. The H and V signage ensures you know your horizontal from your vertical, though you don’t always know what direction you’re going in. Anyway, driverless cars are just about imaginable here in Milton Keynes’s futuristic roadscape. It’s a much bigger leap of the imagination to see driverless cars on London’s irrational, often narrow, traffic-clogged streets.
Still, we can all imagine which app-based private hire company will be the first to try to run driverless cabs. Powerful organisations with money behind them will surely try to buy in to both driverless civilian cars and private hire. So could it really come to pass? Tentatively, I still don’t think so.
I’ve read that driverless cars could currently handle 1% of American roads. That’s still a whopping 99% to go, and American cities tend to be more spacious and more rationally arranged. There’s simply too much traffic and not enough room in British cities. London’s far too chaotic. Whole lanes will need to be given over to afford driverless vehicles safe passage. They’ve spent the last decade marking out cycle lanes, and they’re still relentlessly paving the already narrow roads into single lanes. If driverless cars are given a dedicated lane, where will the buses go? (Actually, driverless buses have also been predicted).
“Driverless” usually means the vehicle’s steering, accelerating, braking and indicating will be automatically controlled between two points, similar to an aeroplane’s auto-pilot system. There is also the technology to park a car automatically while you stand on the kerb. Driverless could mean there’s someone present in the vehicle, but not driving; or a completely un-manned vehicle. A new Highway Code will be brought out to cover all eventualities. Google seem to be at the forefront of driverless development. They’re testing a “Chauffeur “system, which uses what they call “Lidar”: an extremely accurate version of radar and sonar.
It’s possible to run driverless tube trains; so the idea of driverless Intercity trains, or the Eurostar, should be possible too (union support withstanding). But trains are run on rails and have very limited stopping points. Obstructions on the line are rare. You’re unlikely to be surprised by a crane operation, or find your way barred by a gaggle of rickshaws.
Some people see driverless vehicles in a convoy like a road-train. How will a driverless car negotiate around obstructions, or overtake? I don’t see how these vehicles won’t be obstructed by other vehicles cutting through the gaps. What about cycles and pedestrians? In normal driving you are often changing lanes because of obstructions. Think of roadworks, badly parked vehicles, or the humble pothole. It’s said that a driverless car can’t tell the difference between a rock and a piece of crumpled paper, and will steer to avoid both. If it encounters a set of roadworks it has a wobble, slows to a crawl, and occasionally gives up.
Research and testing continues around the world. Developments seem to be progressing at a fair pace in some countries. Apparently, Nissan has fitted an all-electric LEAF with an array of lasers and sensors so it can drive itself. Nissan claim it will be the first semi-autonomous car to be marketed, in 2020. Driverless taxis are also being tested. Developments in driverless technology are easily looked up on the internet. A quick scan this morning brought up the scary – yet predictable – headline from a technology website: “Singapore wants a driverless version of Uber.”
I’m prepared to believe cars can park themselves. I can believe cars can drive themselves on a test circuit. But I don’t believe we’ll see driverless cars on the streets of busy British cities like London. Still, the first Knowledge boys of 1851 would have looked forward to a cab-driving career involving a horse and a bale of hay for fuel. Maybe they would have laughed at the idea of a diesel-powered taxi with electric lights, heating, a CD player, and air conditioning. And stuff I don’t understand such as MP3s and blue teeth. So, while I remain sceptical, I still have that nagging fear that nailing my colours to the mast now may set me up to look foolish should this article be reprinted in ten or twenty years’ time. We’ll see…
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.