Road to nowhere

29 Dec|Christian Wolmar

From driverless cars to everlasting life, the hubristic tech gods have over-promised. It ain’t gonna happen, says Christian Wolmar

Technology is the new religion. Because of the transformation from an analog to a digital world in the past half century, there is a growing belief that “Technology” can solve any problem.

Driverless cars are probably the most widely hyped part of this paradigm. Barely a day goes by without news of the latest development in driverless cars. New sites for testing, developments in the technology or dates for their introduction are constantly being announced in the media. An analysis of the predictions of 18 car makers by BDO, the accountancy and business advisory company, suggests, with a precision that possibly reflects an element of irony, that on average, “driverless technology will be ready around 2 am on 11 June 2021” whereas “ride-hailing services and technology suppliers predict that driverless car technology will be ready by midnight, 14 March 2020”.

What “ready”’ means rather differs from company to company. The common standard employed in the industry is that there are six levels of “autonomy” ranging from Level 0 – think 2CV or Ford Anglia – to Level 4, where the car drives itself in any eventuality but still has a steering wheel and pedals and Level 5, where they have neither and there is no possibility of human intervention except, possibly, an emergency stop button. The various companies involved are often unclear about precisely what they mean by driverless – or to use the more technical term “autonomous” – and therefore the significance of these potential milestones is somewhat unclear. The implication, however, of all these predictions is that in the near future, driverless cars will play a significant role in the transportation systems of many countries across the world.

While the various manufacturers have somewhat different conceptions of what this new driverless world may look like, the long term vision converges towards a major transport revolution that will be based on driverless, electric and shared-use vehicles. It is a giant leap for mankind and yet it has been broadly accepted by most commentators and business analysts in this field. Worse, politicians are lapping it up.

Yet the very radicalism and the huge number of obstacles that need to be overcome before this vision can become a reality are barely examined. Techno-optimists seem to take as given a variety of radical assumptions which fall apart when tested. Moreover, they are selling the concept on the basis that in this new world, there will be less congestion, fewer cars, more efficient use of road space and no more accidents.

One assumption is that people will happily dispense with their own cars once driverless models become widely available, and rely on Uber-type services to call up vehicles when they are needed. This is controversial in the extreme. For the past century, people have bought their own cars, despite the high cost, for a whole host of reasons: convenience, choice of type of vehicle, accessibility and, for many, keeping up with or bettering the Joneses. The idea that suddenly this will all be abandoned because vehicles will no longer be driven does not appear logical. After all, for people who at the moment live in a city served by good private hire and taxi services including Uber, the option of not owning a car is perfectly feasible.

Yet, talking to the people who run Zipcar, they recognise that this will always be a minority. People like the convenience of having, say, baby seats, golf clubs or tools in the car and, moreover, the guarantee that the car is outside the home for immediate use. Relying on a shared use when you have to get to work at a particular time or take the kids to school will never be able to replace that. Uber, at the moment, is notorious for telling people that the car will arrive in five minutes when it takes 15. While in central London it may be possible to rely on getting a vehicle in time, will people in Woking, Chelmsford, or villages outside those towns, ever be able to rely on such a service? The provision of sufficient cars would not be cost-effective – and who would take the financial risk? Would these cars be guaranteed to be clean and not full of last night’s occupants’ BO, or worse? Who will ensure this is the case?

There are myriad reasons why this scenario is implausible. This is, on the face of it, a very strange basis for the massive investment programmes by the tech and auto manufacturers, given the lack of evidence that people are prepared to do this. So why has this shared use concept become so important for the autonomous car protagonists?

The reason, in fact, points to their Achilles Heel and demonstrates that the extent to which the whole fantasy of an autonomous-car-dominated world is an impossible dream. The supporters of autonomous cars have been forced to put forward this shared use scenario because otherwise they will face the criticism that the advent of driverless cars will lead to an increase in cars on the road and consequently greater congestion.

“Ah no,” they say, “cars are only in use around 5 per cent of the time and therefore having autonomous cars which are shared will lead to a massive reduction in the number of vehicles on the road.” This is a desperate argument borne of the necessity to create the pretence that the spread of driverless will lead to a reduction in congestion when the opposite is so obviously the case. Not only will people be unwilling to rely on what is effectively a driverless taxi service, but there will be all these empty cars driving around.

This is an extract from a longer piece which appears in Idler 64. Buy a copy here.