Monday, 24 October 2016

Will London be ready for driverless cars?

The car guzzles unleaded petrol from the pump and the supermarket slurps £1.15 per litre from my wallet.
I know that geo-political chicanery, oil-producing dictatorships and petro-dollar deals somehow fill my tank with this explosive pollutant mix.
But I'm not troubled by all of that today. I'm joining a queue of other drivers fuming as they watch an elderly gent struggle to inflate his tyres. 
Visiting a London petrol station in 2016 feels expensive and archaic.

Even car manufacturers agree.
They say driverless cars, or ‘autonomously driven vehicles’, will be ubiquitous within five years. Makers like Mercedes-Benz say driverless cars will be the biggest paradigm shift since society replaced horses with horsepower over a century ago.
As soon as 2020, according to some vehicle makers, we will be able to sit with our backs to the traffic reading our iPads whilst automatically being driven to our destination.
For instance, Mercedes Benz says its autonomously driven F015 interacts with passengers, pedestrians, other vehicles and its surroundings (above).
Mercedes-Benz describes the F015 as a ‘mobile living space’ that allows passengers to use their time in a variety of ways while on the road.*
‘Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,’ says Dr Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.
‘The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport.”

Naturally, Londoners will have to trust the autonomous technology to be safe.
But even if we embrace technology that replaces us as drivers, is London anywhere near ready for a transformation that will render everyone a passenger?
Driverless vehicles would make thousands of taxi, bus and mini-cab drivers and chauffeurs not only redundant but also obsolescent.

How will Dr Zetsche’s ‘mobile living spaces’ impact on London’s existing roads and on other transport modes?
Will they eliminate human error, accidents and fatalities?
Sure, electric cars will cut pollution but will there be enough charging points?
Would London’s ‘petrol heads’ that like to own and drive their own cars have to pay a premium to stay on the roads?
Will police cars, ambulances and fire engines be automatically piloted too?
Londoners would also be able to forget drivers’ insurance, driving tests and licenses. Londoners might be riding in Apple and Google cars – and most might share or hire cars, just like they rent bicycles in 2016.
So many questions – and yet, barring a few magazine articles, there is little or no conversation in London about possible answers.

The driverless and electric Navya ARMA bus (© Navya 2016)

London is already behind other cities.
For instance, bus passengers are already using two operational driverless buses in Lyon, the French city that pioneered self-service bike rentals.
Up to 15 passengers can ride two electric minibuses that operate a ten-minute route at an average speed of 10km (6 miles) per hour.
The four-metre long Navya-designed ARMA buses (above), costing £170,000 each, carry lasers, cameras and sensors to avoid collisions – although they cannot manoeuvre in traffic.
However, Navya chief executive Christopher Sapet says bigger driverless buses and then cars will soon follow.
‘A driverless French car operating in cities can become a reality as soon as 2018.’

Amidst all of this welter of innovation and paradigm shifts, I notice one thing about the driverless bus. 
Those tyres will still need inflating.

* The F015 is over five metres long and just 1.5 metres high, similar to an S-Class Mercedes. A capsule-like bodyshell is constructed from carbon fibre reinforced plastic, aluminium and steel. A flat front windscreen covers the roof. LED lights provide a variety of lighting functions. Inside, a lounge-like cabin offers swivelling seats that can be turned to face each other while travelling. Six high-resolution display screens integrated throughout the interior allow passengers to use touch, gestures, or eye movements to navigate, browse, or see outside the car.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, London, October 2016