Are self-driving cars really all that?

The self-driving car holds much promise. But it might not be taking you to any destination just yet.

The self-driving car has been invented, but is it likely to be widely adopted by as a mode of transport? Will we really buy self-driving cars? Or will we hire them like taxis, or even hop on and off them (or in and out of them) like buses? What would have to change in the way we live our everyday lives in order for us to adopt this strange interloper? And what sort of other things and services might we need to support travelling around in driverless cars?

Some of these questions go so far into the future that we can't possibly know the answers. So let's start with what we do know, and that is, perhaps surprisingly, the technology behind a self-driving car.

The concept of the self-driving (or, more alarmingly put, the driverless car) relies on the clever assembly of many existing technologies. There are several versions of the driverless car in existence, so let's focus on one of them. Google's car is perhaps the most widely covered. Developed through their long collaboration with Stanford University, it cleverly combines a raft of technologies that most of us, in one way and another, are fairly familiar with.

The car uses data gathered from Google Street View with artificial intelligence software, inputs from video cameras installed inside the car, a light detecting and ranging sensor (LIDAR) on the roof, a radar sensor on the front and positioning sensors on the rear wheels. Interestingly, the self-driving car looks suspiciously similar to any other car (only with a few extra gadgets). This is likely to change as the physical constraints presented by these technologies are overcome by the skills of designers that reconfigure interior car spaces as meeting rooms, cafes or perhaps even playrooms.

Not only does the current Google car look very similar to any other Toyota Prius, but the idea is that it actually behaves like one too. Making use of our existing infrastructure, roads, parking facilities, fuel and service stations, the car is designed to replicate the capabilities of human drivers - without human input.

This could be all for the good, and bodes well for its early adoption. Research shows products that fit in to our everyday ways of doing things are much more likely to be adopted. We need little convincing of this when we consider how Apple introduced a tiny computer into our pockets where a mobile phone used to be.

We took to the iPhone like ducks to water because it fitted in with how we were already trying to live (emails on the move, taking and sharing photographs, synchronised and shared diaries and so on). Will the self-driving car be such a welcome fit? As a society we remain much in love with the car, despite persistent efforts to persuade us to make more frequent use of public transport. With a car we can simply jump in and go wherever we want, whenever we want, with no prior arrangement or planning. This flexibility and convenience is what makes us love our cars and if the driverless car can offer this then perhaps it's in with a shout.

The logic behind the driverless car is also most appealing. By relying on technologies we can tame or even eliminate the human error that lies behind so many horrific road traffic accidents. But change begets change.

If we remove drivers, what else might we surreptitiously lose, gain or need, to make our new automobile system work as well as or better than our existing one? We might lose the need for driving tests. So we may lose the structure which provides both education about rules of the road and the framework for developing the capabilities and knowledge that underpin licensing and traffic regulation requirements.

And what is missing? If we break down now, we call the breakdown services and they come and fix our car by the roadside. When a driverless car malfunctions and takes us somewhere we don't want to go, or stops on the highway and won't move, what kind of breakdown service will we need to rescue us? With the increased sophistication of the technologies of driverless vehicles we will need to access different kinds of services to keep us all motoring.

Similarly, as the sophistication of the technologies increases, will the price increase too? This matters because it affects how the market unfolds. If prices turn out to be prohibitive for mass market consumption, then it is likely to be only the wealthy, businesses (maybe taxi firms, or other public transport providers), or even governments, that first adopt these technologies.

Even with government support and intervention there is no guarantee of success. Take the French government’s ill-fated attempt to introduce Aramis, a driverless light rail car, to Paris in the 1980s. Despite being championed by the French defence company Matra and supported by the government, and despite the successful development of prototypes (boasting some of the most advanced and reliable technologies of its time) the project failed to take off. The experience is described in a wonderful book Aramis or The love of Technology by Bruno Latour.

Could the driverless car meet the same fate? We do not yet know. What is more certain is that there is much work that needs to be done to make the market for the driverless car a reality. There are policy implications associated with developing the right infrastructure, creating a new automotive support system and the right markets for self-drive systems. Manufacturers will need to understand the services and capabilities they need to supply with these new vehicles. Businesses will have to develop new models that connect them with other businesses to form networks of support and they will have to work to imagine, make and shape markets for these new technologies as they unfold. The self-driving car holds much promise. But it might not be taking you to any destination just yet.

Dr Katy Mason is Reader in Marketing & Management at Lancaster University. She is co-author of the paper "Self driving cars: A case study in making new markets", which is part of a series of reports on market making for the Big Innovation Centre.

The Google car. Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Mason is Reader in Marketing & Management at Lancaster University.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.