Driverless minicabs (part 79)

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

I had a good laugh at the headline in Taxi on October 3oth: “Addison Lee Plans Driverless Minicabs by 2021.” I checked to see if it was April Fool’s Day, but no; our old private hire friends Addison Lee reckon they’ll be rolling out driverless cars within three years. It was almost Halloween, but I wasn’t spooked by ALs claims, as stories are regularly popping up about driverless cars and minicabs. They can all be driven off with a clove of garlic.

It’s true that companies with money to burn are still testing out driverless cars. British start-up FiveA1 said it’ll trial an autonomous ride-sharing service in the suburbs of London next year. Nice publicity stunt, Addison Lee and FiveA1; but it’ll come to nothing. The scariest organisation of them all, Uber, suspended testing when a woman was tragically killed by a driverless Uber car this March in Arizona. Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, is the voice of reason, saying he can’t see autonomous cars becoming a reality because of the challenges in real-world scenarios.

Real-world scenarios include being able to tell the difference between a rock in the road and a paper bag. Never mind Brexit, international boundaries make things more complicated too. Most of the technology is from the USA, and American software in driverless cars is unsuitable for use outside the USA. The artificial intelligence in American vehicles can’t spot black cabs and red buses because it hasn’t been programmed to recognise shapes not encountered on American roads. This could pose a problem in London. I daresay American software could be programmed eventually, but I still think the technology is some way off. Driverless cars will never be sophisticated enough to operate on British cities. Maybe pods could drive themselves up and down separate lanes alongside the boulevards of Milton Keynes, but they’d basically be trams. Or those monorails I fondly remember from holidays to Butlins in the 1960s. It won’t happen in London.

If a driverless car can’t spot a London bus, will it be able to spot traffic cones, plastic orange fencing, metal barriers, or bits of metal sticking out of those huge iron barriers that have blighted the area around Buckingham Palace for years? Will an autonomous car know to move over to avoid cycle lanes, or even cycles?

Will driverless technology be able to handle different environmental conditions? What about the weather? Will hail stones be identified as missiles? Will fog, rain, and large snowflakes slow things down? What about the wrong kind of leaves on the road?

Will a self-driven minicab be able to expertly park between two vehicles while a passenger uses a cashpoint? Will a self-driven taxi be able to park between two other cabs, fix an electrical cable between the vehicle and a charging point, and somehow make payment (assuming diesel vehicles have been bombed and banned by this time)?

Electric Cabs (part 94)

No, driverless cabs are aeons away. Electric cabs are already here though, and there are more on the roads every day. I really didn’t think the take-up would be so high, particularly with the high price of the current vehicle available, and concerns over the lack of charging points. Three-month waiting list!

My seven-year old TX4 had a new engine fitted in October, and a new gearbox in November. That was my savings gone.  It could be a lean Christmas, and I won’t by thinking about going electric for a good eighteen months. There should be more charging points by then, and hopefully a choice of vehicle (I presume self-driving cars would face the same problem in finding charging points?). The electric car project is realistic though. I see the future to be one of one-stop motorists’ centres: a combined charging station, supermarket and café. Maybe a service centre too. It’s all very exciting, but I can’t see the future of motoring without the driver.

I’ll look forward to the New Year with optimism, and with no driverless minicabs on the horizon, ever. For a change, I’ll finish with someone else’s opinion on the subject:  “This cannot be considered a mature technology if it cannot recognise a red bus but it can spot a Chevorolet.” This quote is from the aptly named MP, Tom Brake. No it’s really not April 1. As Noddy Holder customary says at this time of year, “it’s Christmas!” Have a large one.

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