Today’s autonomous vehicles provide driver assistance but still require constant supervision and potential intervention by a suitably qualified driver. They are a stepping stone to technology that could take over control of the vehicle permanently, perhaps not in this decade but in the future.
Autonomous vehicles have been promoted initially on safety grounds as a means to eliminate human error but, looking ahead, they could provide the biggest transport revolution in the developed world since the arrival of affordable mass produced cars. Why? Because once they are developed to the point where driver input is neither necessary nor desirable, we won’t need drivers at all.
For anybody growing up since WWII, learning to drive has been taken for granted as part of life; providing a route to personal mobility and independence. Yet even the keenest driver must wonder sometimes, perhaps while sitting in urban gridlock during the daily commute, whether the journey time could be better spent relaxing or working rather than repetitively operating the controls: start-stop-pause-start-stop-repeat.
Driving skills would become irrelevant in a future where our roads are populated by autonomous vehicles. Technology would operate as a leveller, allowing those who are too frail, too anxious or too disinterested in driving, the same mobility as the most enthusiastic motorist. Once the technology becomes established, if all you need is the ability to program a Satnav with your destination, why would you need the ability to drive?
Driving licenses would become unnecessary, as would individual insurance; presumably liability would sit with the vehicle manufacturer, since the user does not control the vehicle? At this point there seems to be little prospect of the ‘pride of ownership’ that comes with car purchase for many people today, so why own the vehicle at all? Phone a local fleet provider and give your details and a freshly valeted autonomous vehicle of the size you request will arrive at your door, ready to take you to your destination: maybe a single-seater for the daily commute, or a seven-seater for a weekend trip with all the family?
This may all sound very depressing, even Orwellian, to motoring enthusiasts but providing that manual control is not prohibited entirely there remains the prospect of driving just for pleasure. A ‘new’ leisure activity could well become popular in which driving is seen as a hobby for enthusiasts. They will still need their driving licences and insurance policies, and new participants will require suitable training, so it could well be an expensive hobby but at least it would be feasible. In the case of motorcycles, it may be too difficult to adapt autonomous technology or there may be no demand for the end product, so manual operation could well remain predominant.
The prospects for employment in vehicle manufacture, sales and servicing may be unaffected in overall terms by the switch to a largely autonomous vehicle population, though the distribution of jobs and their locations could be quite different. The greatest changes would result from a decline in retail sales if rental fleet operation became the established practice.
And what of those who prefer to cycle as a means of keeping fit but worry about road safety? Perhaps installing an exercise bike in an autonomous vehicle, maybe with a rebate on fuel costs based on the electricity generated while pedalling, would be a step too far?