A self-driving revolution? We’re barely out of second gear

This morning’s Observer column:

“Britain moves closer to a self-driving revolution,” said a perky message from the Department for Transport that popped into my inbox on Wednesday morning. The purpose of the message was to let us know that the government is changing the Highway Code to “ensure the first self-driving vehicles are introduced safely on UK roads” and to “clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles, including when a driver must be ready to take back control”.

The changes will specify that while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to, such as when they approach motorway exits. They also signal a puzzling change to current regulations, allowing drivers “to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens while the self-driving vehicle is in control”. So you could watch Gardeners’ World on iPlayer, but not YouTube videos of F1 races? Reassuringly, though, it will still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, “given the greater risk they pose in distracting drivers as shown in research”.

As usual, the announcement comes coated in three layers of prime political cant. This “exciting technology” is “developing at pace right here in Great Britain” (but apparently not in Northern Ireland; could it be that the DUP doesn’t approve of such advanced technology?). The government is “ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when the technology takes to our roads”, which will be great once it has attended to the crumbling physical foundations of the roads in my neighbourhood. And of course it’s all happening “while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower”…

Read on

So what happens to urban traffic if we get self-driving cars?

Answer: our streets become much more congested. This thought-provoking post comes from Quartz:

Researchers at the University of California, Davis and UC-Berkeley gave a test group free private drivers to see what would happen when people get self-driving cars. Vehicle usage soared by 83%. That’s a potential nightmare in traffic-choked metropolitan areas, where increased travel could erase the efficiency gains of the last fifty years.

The outlines of this future are coming into focus in San Francisco. Between 2010 and 2016, congestion in the city rose by about 60%, city officials estimate. Half of this was attributed to Lyft and Uber as more people took ride-hailing services instead of transit and other non-car forms of transportation. Cars driving around waiting for passengers to hail them added to the problem, especially in congested areas of the city.

City planners say that to ease congestion, it’s key to keep private AVs on the periphery of dense urban centers, and focus on public transit and last-mile solutions at the center. If “personally-owned automated vehicles are superimposed on today’s patterns of usage… that will lead to the hell scenario,” says Daniel Sperling, founder of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC-Davis. What, then, would heaven look like? “UberPool without the driver.”

This is interesting because AV-evangelists are always saying that self-driving cars will make our cities more pleasant.