Driverless Cars and Parking Congestion

Written by Kate Goldstone

The UK car industry is hoping for a whopping £19m government investment to help fund new innovations. A host of regular car manufacturers are joining the race, all revealing their own designs. Google has been testing their own revolutionary driverless vehicle technology for some time. They’ve collected data about literally hundreds of thousands of miles of driverless test drives so far.

Google Self Driving Car

Google Self Driving Car

Germany, traditionally the EU’s greenest nation, is determined to lead the way in driverless car implementation and is already looking at how the associated laws, rules and regulations might work. Now the British government has also confirmed  its intention to dominate the driverless car market.

What are the ecological implications of driverless cars, are they safe, what will it mean for parking and how long will it be before we actually see them on our roads?

Driverless cars – Tapping into a future market worth £900 billion

It looks like the race is on, as the UK government lays plans to support the nation’s designers in taking the lead on driverless vehicle technology. The future market is estimated to grow and grow, set to be worth at least £900bn by 2025 if the pundits have got it right.

It’s obviously well worth getting involved from a financial perspective. And the initiative is already moving fast. There’s a special shuttle being tested in Greenwich plus a so-called ‘electric pod’ which’ll be tested on closed roads and pedestrian areas in Coventry and Milton Keynes. At the same time Bristol will host a trial to establish public reaction, explore legal issues and assess how motor insurance policies might need to change.

As Vince Cable confirmed, we’re at the ‘cutting edge’ of automotive technology. The nation’s latest driverless vehicle tech accolades include all-electric cars built in Sunderland and our world-class Midlands-based Formula One expertise. Cable has also launched a competition to research and develop driverless cars, and the country’s leaders have already confirmed that there aren’t any legal barriers to prevent testing the vehicles on public roads.

Mercedes Driverless Car

Mercedes Driverless Car

Are driverless cars dangerous?

Human-driven cars are pretty dangerous, as borne out by the country’s RTA stats. The driver-free shuttles already being tested in the UK include special sensors designed to avoid danger, detecting moving objects close by and slowing down when pedestrians get anywhere near. If someone gets too close the car comes to a safe stop in good time.

Google’s goal is to relieve as much as 90% of traffic congestion while cutting accidents – 90% of which are caused by human error – equally dramatically. As you can imagine, many experts think the driverless option will, in fact, be much safer, with new tech resulting in fewer road accidents compared to notoriously error-prone human drivers. But to be on the safe side, UK trials all involve cars that can easily be taken over by a qualified driver if something goes wrong.

The motor insurance bit

The trend has implications for motor insurers, too. And there are a lot of questions to answer, including who will be responsible if something goes wrong. Will it be the maker of the car, the ‘driver’ or owner, or the clever geeky type who programmed the car’s software?

Things get even more complex when you start thinking about the fact that most of the new vehicles won’t be 100% driverless all the time. The fact that people can intercept the system and take over adds more layers of potential complexity to both insurance and the law.

Driverless Vehicle Technology

Driverless Vehicle Technology

Will driverless technologies save time and money?

In this country the jury is out, but research by Morgan Stanley in the USA reveals a set of bold predictions about how much money driverless tech will save the States:

  • Savings from avoiding collisions – $488 billion
  • Productivity gains from saved driver time – $507 billion
  • Fuel savings – $158 billion
  • Productivity gains from less congestion – $138 billion
  • Fuel savings from less congestion – $11 billion

The ecological implications of going driverless

Just because a car doesn’t need a driver, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily any greener. But the way people drive has a dramatic effect on how much fuel they use and therefore how much CO2 their cars emit. Presumably driverless vehicles will be programmed to drive in the most fuel efficient way possible, which means they’ll be greener by nature. But there’s more, and it affects the very future of the planning process. As Green Home Builder magazine says:

“The very act of decoupling parking requirements from obtaining project approvals will have an enormous impact on how we design office buildings, retail centers, high-density multi-family projects and even the traditional single-family home.”

What effect will it have on the way traffic currently works in the UK?

Inevitably there’s a level of panic from some. There always is when new tech raises its head. In the case of driverless technologies, some feel they’ll more or less wipe out the minicab industry. Others are more sanguine. After all radio didn’t kill the theatre, TV didn’t kill radio, video didn’t kill the cinema and – so far – the web hasn’t killed the high street. Most of the time new developments add to our choices rather than reducing them. A common sense view might be that as well as traditionally-driven cars and cabs we’ll also have the choice of driverless ones.

What about driverless cars and parking?

There’s no reason why a driverless car should takeup less room than an ordinary one. There doesn’t seem to be a logical reason why driverlessness should result in fewer or more parking issues per se. The problem remains the same: there are too many cars in Britain full stop, and most of our towns and cities are old, not designed or built with car ownership in mind.

Parking Congestion

Parking Congestion

But there are changes afoot. As Mark Pack, the UK Liberal Democrat commentator and public relations expert says:

With automated vehicles will come far greater sharing of vehicles as people just summon a vehicle via their smartphone when they need it, and hence a massive fall in the need for huge acres of parking spaces outside developments. But if, as is also very likely, these cars are also nearly all electric, it will also need a very different pattern of electricity supply. Fewer open spaces of prime land given over to slabs of concrete to hold expensive assets being left unused and instead more demands for electricity to charging points in dispersed locations.

Will airport parking be affected?

What will driverless cars will mean for car parking challenges in densely parked areas like airports? Again, it’s difficult to imagine how the mere fact of not needing a human driver will affect airport parking in any way at all. People will still get into their cars to be taken to the airport, and leave their vehicles parked until they get home. Or will they…?

What about car ownership?

Obviously cars would still need to be stashed somewhere or other. So there are land use issues. But here’s an interesting thought. You don’t need to drive a driverless car. So does that mean you still need to actually own one?

Will the driverless model change the way we see car ownership, with people simply summoning a car from a public repository of some kind whenever they need one instead of having their own car parked at home?  It might sound weird at first but once you start thinking about it, wouldn’t it be lovely? Our children could play safely in the streets again, the way they did before cars killed everyone’s fun. Our neighbourhoods would look attractive again, green and leafy instead of stuffed full of tons of ugly metal. Fewer of our beloved pets would be run over… the list goes on.

Will you still need to learn to drive? Perhaps not. Will people who can’t drive regular cars for medical reasons be able to enjoy road travel for the first time? Let’s hope so. Will it cut the number of young drivers – notoriously dangerous people – killed on the roads and prevent them from killing other people? Probably.

In your own bubble…

The completely autonomous F015 concept car from Mercedes highlights another potential issue: because the F015’s futuristic design protects its driver in a cocoon of luxury, there’s no real need for the occupants to interact with the outside world in any way at all. Would it be a shame if automation totally isolated riders from the places they travel through? Would it really make any difference to the way we already sail through villages, towns, cities and landscapes without a second thought, as though they’re computer-generated? And does it actually matter?

A genuine revolution

Very few innovations lead to a genuine revolution in the way the human race does its thing. Driverless cars are an exception. This really is revolutionary stuff, and it’s set to change the way we travel forever. Right now it’s a few years off – there’s a lot of rigorous testing ahead before driver-free travel becomes an everyday reality. But change is on the wind.

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We’d love to know what you think. Feel free to leave a comment.

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