For some years now I’ve been voicing scepticism about the likelihood that we’ll be seeing completely autonomous vehicles buzzing about our streets. Whether on grounds of economics (too many people want to travel at the same time of the day and that’s due to factors unrelated to transport), through human factors (we negotiate city driving through complex non-verbal communication), through the experience of history (new capacity in transportation usually just leads to more congestion, and why aren’t trains already all autonomous?) there are just too many factors that feel wrong for the transport utopia that is painted to be correct. I’ve no doubt that there will continue to be significant advances in supervised autonomous vehicles (Tesla’s autopilot et al.), but I don’t see my benchmark for autonomous vehicles being hit in my lifetime on current models. Oh, and my benchmark, by the way, is a vehicle into which I can legally stumble after a night in the pub and will successfully and safely get me home. Shallow, I know…

I’m obviously flying in the face of many huge industrial concerns with these views. The upstarts like Elon Musk, Google and (apparently) Apple. The once mighty automotive industry. They’re all banking on these self-driving doo-dahs.

But listening to the latest episode of the ever-excellent Start Up podcast at the weekend allowed me to realise what it is above all else that I think is wrong with the current thinking. It’s the concept of the driver-less car. That is to me akin to the first few decades of the auto industry who spent their time constructing horse-less carriages. The first few decades of cars looked just like that – a horse buggy without the equine power source. They were open to the elements. They had wheels that looked like they could have been constructed many decades before. They, in short, took no real advantage of the new technology available other than they produced a lot less horseshit.

Now look at today’s crop of autonomous vehicles: they are either actual cars with a bunch of technology stuffed inside. Or they are things like the Google car which look like a five-year-old’s drawing of a car. But in all cases four wheels, windscreens, doors at the side, lights at the front and back. They’re cars without the driver.

Now I can’t believe that the form factor that was evolved to support a driver and an internal combustion engine is the optimum design for even that combination, let alone an autonomous vehicle powered by electricity or hydrogen. Nor are roads as we currently know them the place. And don’t think that roads are something that are natural – they way in which we construct, design and ornament our thoroughfares today is totally determined to suit the needs of the driven petrol car.

Increasingly automated cars operating in more-or-less conventional ways are the thing we’ll see in the next few decades. It’ll take until the 30s or 40s before we start to see glimmers of what the new form of transport will look like, in the same way that it took until the 1920s and 1930s before petrol cars found a form and the beginnings of an infrastructure to become what they became. For the foreseeable we’ll see visions of the self-driving future looking remarkably like the present day, and that’s why they’re probably wrong.

One thought on “The driver-less car

  1. I think you’re right. …but I’m also worried that I’m struggling with the way the exponential acceleration of technology works. The iPhone revolutionised the handheld space in a couple of years: compare that to the decades it too to revolutionise the PC space or the 15 years that the original handheld format held on for. I don’t think we’ll see these new types of transport evolve in the way the original car did. …but nor will it happen in the way we hope. It’ll seem too be stalled right up until the point at which it is upon us.

    At the turn of this century I was interested in PRTS (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_rapid_transit ). These are autonomous vehicles that cooperate to use a shared track such that everyone travels at a constant speed all the time (and if you need to stop, you pull into a station and if you need to slow down you just take a more convoluted route to your destination). I thought they were great. However, they’re not viable because of the massive infrastructure investment needed for the tracks.

    It took me some time to understand the driver-less-car fetish but I think it’s the only option that can apply at scale: somehow we have to transform the model given the existing infrastructure as a constraint rather than having the freedom to start from scratch. Whatever comes next, the economics are such that it has to be able to coexist with the existing car system on the existing roads. Only when it’s succeeded will the infrastructure begin to support it natively.

    Essentially we have to incrementally evolve our way out of the current system and into something new.

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