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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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