These days party political conferences are often packed with speeches that mention the role of technology that will drive economies forward, and that was no different in Britain this month when the British Conservative government held its conference in Birmingham, UK.

Transport secretary [or governmental transport head] Chris Grayling made headlines by saying he expected commercial driverless cars to be on the country’s roads by 2022 at the latest. Freelance technology writer, Antony Savvas considers whether the progress will be that straightforward.

“We are now rapidly approaching the era of the driverless car,” Grayling told conference delegates and people bothering to watch on TV. “I expect the first truly driverless cars to be on our roads within three or four years.”

End of petrol head

Grayling added that he was committed to ending the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, but that diesel cars would have a role in years to come. “Newer diesel cars today are cleaner than ever before and of course there will be a role for diesel for many years to come as technology evolves,” he said.

The transport chief has laid out the advantages of driverless technology in previous speeches, not least the potential for cutting down road accidents. Seeing that 85% of road accidents in the UK are said to be caused by human error, what better way to improve matters than with a clever computer?

Mark Bridger

He even believes that many who currently can’t drive will be able to take to the road with a driverless car, and that the new vehicles expected to appear will make it easier for the elderly and the disabled to drive.

Autonomous fleets

He also pointed out that there are currently six cars for every 10 people in the UK, but that they are only used about 3% of the time. “Connected and autonomous taxis could deliver the same number of trips with just 10% of the vehicles,” he said. And an autonomous car fleet could reduce delays by 40% on the strategic road network, and 30% in urban areas, believed Grayling.

And looking at the economics, Grayling said the market for autonomous vehicles could be worth £28 billion (€31.89 billion) to the UK by 2035. This is one major reason his government is promoting an “open” code of practice for testing automated vehicles on public roads in the country, with the likes of Nissan and Volvo already having test programmes in the UK.

But while the potential for the driverless industry may seem bright across the private and fleet automotive sectors, maybe drivers themselves aren’t getting carried away. OpenText, the enterprise information management vendor, recently surveyed 2,000 UK citizens on their attitudes towards driverless/autonomous cars.

Citizen confusion

The survey revealed confusion around the extent to which the UK public believe driverless cars will infiltrate their daily lives in the coming years, highlighting a mixture of inevitability and wariness. While 60% of UK citizens think there will be a time when driverless/autonomous cars outnumber crewed vehicles, over half (52%) would never consider buying a driverless car or renting one on a per-use basis, even if they were priced similarly to a “normal” car.

A third (31%) of UK citizens think there will be more driverless/autonomous cars on the road than normal cars in the next 10 to 15 years. However, when OpenText ran a similar survey in 2017, more than twice as many people (66%) thought this would be the case.

Antony Savvas

Annual decline

In 2017, 24% also said they would feel comfortable being a passenger in a driverless/autonomous car, yet this figure has dropped to 19% in the latest survey.

Moreover, only 23% responding in the 2018 survey think the ability of driverless/autonomous vehicles to obey all traffic rules will improve road safety, down from 42% in 2017. Now, only 10% think the new technology will make roads safer.

Mark Bridger, SVP Europe at OpenText, said the automotive companies will need to address driver concerns and ensure the technology is safe and reliable in order to install the level of trust needed for mass adoption.

Bridger added: “The research highlights that we’re very much in an era of transition for automotive vehicles. The mix of confusion, fear, optimism and inevitability in the minds of citizens shows that whereas some AI-enabled technologies have moved seamlessly into our lives, more game-changing offerings like autonomous vehicles will take time to be embraced.”

He continued: “AI will enable automakers to analyse, adapt and suggest solutions based on data. As autonomous vehicles become more common, the data they produce will become a new, powerful asset for organisations. But automotive companies need to ensure they are doing more than delivering the most innovative connected technology.

“Addressing consumer concerns and loss of confidence will be critical for success and take up, too.” The automotive industry will be hoping that Grayling, and his counterparts in other countries who push the same message around driverless, are not getting ahead of themselves when it comes to the potential of technology to improve our lives.

The author of this blog is freelance technology writer, Antony Savvas

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