GRAPHICAARTIS/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Transport's favourite myth: why we will never own driverless cars

It is often claimed the driverless car revolution is imminent. But all the hype obscures more urgent problems.

It seems that we are on the verge of a driverless car revolution. George Osborne recently announced that a “train” of automatic trucks controlled solely by the leading vehicle would be tested in Cumbria this year, one of eight driverless vehicle projects to receive £20m in funding from the government.

Trials of autonomous cars are already under way in Milton Keynes and Greenwich and far more extensive testing is being undertaken in the US. In recent testimony before Congress, Google claimed that its fleet of 56 autonomous cars had racked up 1.4 million miles over the past six years. The company predicts that autonomous vehicles will significantly reduce the 94 per cent of road accidents that are caused by human error each year and free up much of the 3,000 square miles devoted to parking across the United States.

The revolution, it is often claimed, is imminent. The Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, who wants to build trains with a top speed of 760 miles an hour in California and central Europe, said in December that his “fully autonomous” car would be ready to launch by 2018. All of this has created enormous hype, with the press suggesting that we will soon be able to sit in our cars – or “pods” – while being driven to work, where we will instruct the vehicle to park itself, or take the kids to school.

Yet even the most cursory examination of the present state of driverless car technology and the potential obstacles to its success – legal, social, economic, political and practical – suggests that a takeover of the mainstream transport system is about as likely as the long-awaited arrival of the futuristic jet packs of 1960s comic books.

Take the sensors, for instance. They may work fine in sunny California but could struggle to combat fog, snow and driving rain. Google’s autonomous cars have a somewhat patchy safety record: as of last month, they recorded fewer than 20 accidents, all minor (mostly rear-end shunts) and all, bar one, not the fault of the Google technology. This is slightly above the comparable rate for conventional cars and quite possibly the result of dangers – what if a mouse ran across the road? – that a human being would generally ignore.

However, it is the single incident caused by driverless technology, in a car that collided with a bus, that is most telling. According to Google’s accident report: “The Google AV [autonomous vehicle] test driver saw the bus approaching in the left-side mirror but believed the bus would stop or slow to allow the AV to continue.” This implies that the test drivers are still the ones making such decisions and that the cars are not “autonomous”. It raises a crucial problem for the new technology: risk.

Consider an autonomous vehicle trying to move into traffic, a manoeuvre that is impossible without some element of risk. Human beings often do it through some sort of interaction – say, flashing lights, or eye contact – and so an element of risk-taking would have to be introduced for autonomous vehicles, too. Once that happens, accidents will occur, and what parent would send his children off to school in a vehicle with risk hard-wired into its software?

The driverless car does not stand up to scrutiny. When pressed, Musk conceded that the “fully autonomous” car that he said would be ready by 2018 would not be completely automatic, nor would it go on general sale. There is a pattern. Whenever I ask people in the field what we can expect by a certain date, it never amounts to anything like a fully autonomous vehicle but rather a set of aids for drivers.

This is a crucial distinction. For this technology to be transformational, the cars have to be 100 per cent autonomous. It is worse than useless if the “driver” has to watch over the controls, ready to take over if an incident seems likely to occur. Such a future would be more dangerous than the present, as our driving skills will have diminished, leaving us less able to react. Google notes that it can take up to 17 seconds for a person to respond to alerts of a situation requiring him or her to assume control of the vehicle.

What is this technology for? The widespread assumption that driverless cars will be a shared resource, like the London Santander Cycles, is groundless. People like owning their personal vehicle because it is always available and can be customised to ensure that the child seat is properly in place and the radio tuned to Magic. Google may be right that a few parking lots will become redundant but it has no answer for the possibility that autonomy will encourage more vehicles on to the road.

The danger of all the hype is that politicians will assume that the driverless revolution obviates the need to search for solutions to more urgent problems, such as congestion and pollution. Why bother
to build infrastructure, such as new Tube lines or tram systems, or to push for road pricing, if we’ll all end up in autonomous pods? Google all but confesses that its autonomous cars are intended to be an alternative to public transport – the opposite of a rational solution to the problems that we face.

So why is George Osborne so interested in this technology? One possibility is that he considers it a way of weakening two of the last remaining bastions of union power: lorry and taxi drivers. Another is that he hopes it will provide a boost for the UK car manufacturing industry. Either way, the revolution, when it comes, will not be driverless. 

Christian Wolmar’s new book, Are Trams Socialist?, will be released next month by the London Publishing Partnership

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. 

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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. 

0800 7318496