Google has revealed more details of the autonomous car it is already testing on public roads in those states in the US where self-driving cars have been made legal.
It’s a blob on wheels with all the visual desirability of a wheelie-bin (and about as much space inside), but that doesn’t bother me at all. Nor am I much concerned about them running amok and mowing down helpless pedestrians either because the camera, GPS and laser technology they use has failed, or because some master criminal has hacked into the system from his lair in an extinct volcano.
I’m not even going to complain about the fact that while electricity is still created in unclean power stations, it cannot claim to be environmentally friendly, merely less environmentally unfriendly. And as for it being merely a front for Google to gather more information about you so it can carpet-bomb you with relevant advertising and let governments check your every movement – well, perhaps I care less about that than I should.
I can see the benefits too. Obviously you can read the paper or catch up on email on your way to work, but unlike the train, it’ll take you straight to the office. I actually think it will reduce the likelihood of accidents because, with cars as with aircraft, the vast majority of incidents are down to driver error. And imagine if you’re elderly or infirm, or disabled in a way that means that driving or even getting to a bus or tube station, let alone wrestling your way on board, is never going to be even a viable option. You’ll qualify for a designated parking space with a kerbside charger outside your front door and it will quite literally change your life, providing freedom of movement hitherto unimaginable in the world as it is today.
Google releases the self-drive car to the general public for the first time
So far, so good. I have just two problems with the concept. First, the car is a city dweller and, with a top speed of 25mph, exclusively so. And the way the world should be working right now is to remove traffic from its cities, not encourage more of it. For while I have no doubt the Google car will be less polluting than a normal car, it will be little or no less congesting. And because it will alleviate the misery of the commute, it will cause people to abandon public transport in their droves. And however low its per-person emissions might be and however little road space it might occupy, the combined total of 70 of them is unlikely to compare well to that of one bus powered by a big, stinking diesel carrying the same number of people.
The other issue is that for almost everyone, save those groups with a genuine need mentioned above, this is going to be a second car because the moment your life requires you to stray beyond the city limits it becomes completely useless. So this limits its role primarily to that of personalised commuter transport for wealthy individuals with off-street parking who have hitherto taken the train to work. A car of the people it is not and, in this form, never will be.
There is undoubtedly huge potential in autonomous driving systems but I think the biggest benefits will come out of town. Imagine driving yourself to the nearest major intercity road, logging onto the network and doing something else until you reach the exit nearest your destination, whereupon you drive the last few miles yourself. Average speeds could be raised because there’d be no relative movement from one car to the next while energy consumption would improve as cars would travel at uniform speeds, rather than constantly accelerating and braking.
There’d be no need to slow for fog and if something untoward did happen, the nearest car to the incident would warn all the others in the area allowing appropriate action to be taken with, or more likely, without, the driver’s involvement. Accident rates would be decimated, journey times slashed, emissions driven down and productivity raised by all those man-hours liberated when you’d otherwise have been driving.
It sounds like science fiction and even though the technology to do all of this exists, it’s not going to happen any time soon, not least because it requires all cars to be in on the act before it can function. But I’d like to see an autonomous drive lane with barriers being trialled on a UK motorway in the next few years – the data it provided would make fascinating reading. In the meantime I can see that while there should be a small market for self-driving cars in town for people with a genuine need for them, the primary focus should remain on reducing rather than encouraging urban traffic, improving public transport and placing the main focus of autonomous drive not in the cities, but between them.