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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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