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14 November 2012

Jeremy Clarkson's worst nightmare is just around the corner

Yesterday on the Deep End, we presented a rather pessimistic view of human progress, noting that new bells and whistles in the realm of cyberspace are no substitute for advances that transform the real world.

However, in a fascinating post on his Conversable Economist blog, Timothy Taylor argues that there’s just such a technological revolution coming around the corner – the driverless car:

  • “Many people have heard about the self-driving cars run by Google that have already driven over 200,000 miles on public roads… automakers are taking this technology very seriously as well, and developing the range of sensor-based and connected-vehicle technologies that would be needed to make this work…
  • “Of course, it is always possible that driverless cars will run up against insurmountable barriers. But skeptics should remember that the original idea of the automobile looked pretty dicey as well…”
  • “If the social gains seem large enough, technologies often have a way of emerging.”

But what would be so great about the driverless car?

Most obviously, there’s the elimination of driver error:

  • “Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans aged 4–34. And of the 6 million crashes, 93 percent are attributable to human error... According to research from the American Automobile Association (AAA), traffic crashes cost Americans $299.5 billion annually.”

To get on the roads, the technology would need to be failsafe – or, at least, much safer than the typical human driver. However, once this was established, crashless cars could be redesigned to be dramatically lighter and therefore more fuel efficient – and that’s just the start of the potential savings. For instance, being computer controlled, driverless cars could be networked and driven in coordinated formations known as ‘platoons’:

  • “Research indicates that platooning of vehicles could increase highway lane capacity by up to 500 percent…”

Furthermore, by travelling in computer coordinated platoons, the slipstream effect could be exploited to the full, saving even more fuel. Also, without the need to accommodate wayward human driving patterns we could dispense with “extra-wide lanes, guardrails, stop signs, wide shoulders, rumble strips and other features” producing additional infrastructure savings.

Then there’s the issue of parking, which won’t be the problem it is today because (a) the driverless car could park itself and (b) we’d be more likely to use the things as taxis rather than as owned vehicles that sit there doing nothing for most of the day.

But what about the cultural impact?

The fast car… the open road… it’s all about freedom, isn’t it? How will that work in an era of networked, robotic vehicles in which the human driver has no part? It sounds like Jeremy Clarkson’s worst nightmare – until you consider the fact that in most parts of Britain, driving is already anything but free, constrained as is it by congestion, speed cameras and the rising cost of fuel.

If the technology works out and offers a genuine solution to the sheer hassle of driving in the real world, then the demand would be overwhelming. The human driver would become as irrelevant to our transport systems as the horse is today.


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