In 2015, the company Transport Systems Catapult (TSC), in collaboration with the University of Oxford, tested their Lutz Pathfinder car on the roads of Milton Keynes, the first time an autonomous vehicle was permitted by the UK government to travel on public highways. Further tests involving higher speeds and longer distances have taken place since, and UK Chancellor Philip has stated that driverless cars could be in commercial use on Britain’s roads by 2021. As a business owner or manager, what are some of the benefits and challenges that you need to consider, as it becomes more and more plausible that we accept autonomous vehicles as the norm?
It is estimated that up to 94 percent of road accidents are due to human error or malpractice. Eliminating crashes caused by drink driving, tiredness, distraction and speeding could save thousands of lives a year. There have been a handful of incidents involving autonomous vehicles, such as a shuttle-bus crash in Las Vegas in 2015, but as collision detection technology improves, our streets should become drastically safer in the coming years.
Fewer accidents mean less congestion but, there are also other ways in which the widespread adoption of self-driving cars could reduce traffic jams and bottlenecks across the UK. Compared to human drivers, autonomous vehicles can travel closer together, as well as needing to accelerate and brake less often, contributing to a more even, steady flow of traffic, particularly on motorways.
In September, the government launched a "coordination hub", for testing driverless vehicles, based in Coventry and Stratford. Under the government's Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) program, £100 million pounds is to be invested in schemes like this, to ensure that the UK doesn't get left behind in a global market that could be worth £907 billion pounds by 2035. The new technology could give the manufacture and testing of driverless cars, and secondary industries such as on-demand taxis and road freight a significant boost. Ride-sharing may well become the norm, with the majority of road-users renting transport with services like Uber, rather than purchasing a vehicle themselves.
As with any significant technological development, the widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles will bring challenges that, if not kept in check, could cause social disruption. Around a million people drive for a living in the UK, and if not adequately retrained, may end up facing long-term unemployment. The hope is that as autonomous vehicle technology makes new industries viable, the overall number of job opportunities will increase. We can expect a degree of apprehension from the general public, but overall trust in self-driving cars should grow over time, as they become a part of everyday life. Unstaffed rail services such as London's DLR have been with us for over 30 years, and are now taken for granted.
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