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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.