How close are autonomous vehicles?

There is no question that driving to work is going to be very different in the coming decade. The future is electric and autonomous.

But realistically, how close are we now to unplugging the car, letting it drive us to work, and settling down in the back with the tablet? Is the infrastructure necessary going to be able to keep up? And actually, will people ever trust an automated ‘Johhny-Cab’ straight from the pages of dystopian science fiction?

“Charge her up”

Electric vehicles (EVs) are the future and the future is in the car right behind us. Major manufacturers such as Volvo have announced they will only make hybrid and electric cars from next year. It’s likely that a number of other major manufacturers will follow suit before long. A ban on all non-electric vehicles comes into force in Oxford city centre in 2020. Paris aims for 2030, while Copenhagen will have outlawed diesel by next year, whose mayor Frank Jensen remarked “it’s not a human right to pollute the air for others”. It is clear that one way or another fossil fuel will soon be history.

There are almost 26 million petrol and diesel cars in the UK, and currently only 150,000 electric cars on the road, but that is a rise from only 3,500 in 5 years. Attitudes are shifting and more choice is available. And slowly the recharging network is catching up. But it needs to be quicker.

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Currently there are 16,500 electric car chargers around the UK, not including the chargers that EV owners likely have installed at home. According to a report from Emu Analytics, electric cars are becoming so popular we’ll need to have 83,500 electric car chargers by 2020. The report also predicts that there will be an estimated million electric vehicles on the road in two years’ time.

The National Grid has outlined plans for its own rollout, designed to ensure 90 per cent of EV owners are no more than 50 miles from a charger. BP and Shell have both begun offering portable car chargers at their petrol stations. Which shows that if the market is there (and it will be) the infrastructure will be there too.

The next industrial revolution?

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond said his aim was to see "fully driverless cars" in use by 2021 and described the growth of the technology as the "next industrial revolution". But is the government ‘drive’ to be part of this exciting new science-fictive future moving too fast?

Human factors loom large in driving accident statistics. This is unsurprising as, for now, all cars are driven by people. Self-driving cars can’t get tired, angry or drunk. Neither do purely automated vehicles possess the foresight to avoid potential problems; they drive from moment to moment, rather than anticipating possible events around the corner. In March 2018, concerns were raised after an Uber self-driving car hit and killed a woman in Arizona; the first fatal crash involving a pedestrian. Apple CEO Tim Cook believes surmounting such challenges will be “the mother of all AI projects”.

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The driverless delivery vehicle

William Sachiti, Founder of the Academy of Robotics, is an entrepreneur who is behind the driverless delivery vehicle Kar-Go. Its first street legal prototype will start road trials this year.

Sachiti points to two big obstacles to the mass deployment of driverless cars: Legal liability; “We have built a system in which car drivers are insured against risk, we still do not really have a model for who the liability falls within the event of a crash.

“For example, your vehicle is driving in autonomous mode, there is an incident with a bus driver, where perhaps the bus just pulled out. Now if you were not driving, is it your fault, though the car was driving and not you? The solution lies in getting autonomous cars classed as a work machine and thus an autonomous car accident may be classified as a malfunctioned machine at work.”

He identifies policy-makers as another potential barrier to the emerging car technology; “Often technology is way ahead of legislation. It is still not legal to have autonomous cars on the street completely, rightly so because the technology is not quite ready, but it soon will be and when it does, I sense it will take a long time to get 100 per cent approval.” 

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Sachiti thinks that it will take between five and 15 years before we begin to see driverless cars in the UK.

“There are already driverless cars being tested in the UK, it will take up to five years for us to really begin to see them more abundantly and up to 15 years to see them everywhere. Why 15 years in particular is because the life-cycle of a car is approximately 15 to 20 years, this is the time it will take for the newest cars on the road now to be replaced by autonomous ones.”

So we will go electric. And a little later we will truly go auto. Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov saw a future where this would happen. Tellingly the more realistic versions conjured in Minority Report and I Robot still have a manual drive setting. They could not quite let go of the wheel. And for now neither will the first real driverless cars. But for how long, who can say?

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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