back to article Brit transport pundit Christian Wolmar on why the driverless car is on a 'road to nowhere'

Dive beneath the hype and the dry ice of CES, and it becomes apparent. The connected cars and electric cars being shown off in Las Vegas this week are not self-driving cars; and it has proved a lot harder to make an autonomous car than to sell the idea to an AI-obsessed think tank. Of the many obvious-in-retrospect reasons for …

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Re: It's too Black and White

The killer app for driverless cars is being able to drive to the pub and legally have the car drive you home.

Anything less than that isn't particularly useful.

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aks

Re: It's too Black and White

Surely that's called a taxi (black, mini or uber flavoured) or one of the gang doesn't drink.

Luckily, where I live the nearest pub is 100 yards away and the furthest about a mile (I live on a small island).

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Re: It's too Black and White

Well no it isn't - a taxi suffers the golf bats problem. A fat lot of good it is if my car is in the pub car-park and not my drive, once I've sobered up and want to go for a match of golf on Saturday afternoon.

(I don't actually perform golf but I don't think it detracts from my point.)

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Re: It's too Black and White

Sorry, have to disagree with that. I find the worst part of motorway driving - and the most potentially lethal - is getting bored driving long straight roads with little or no interest to stop you from nodding off. Driving around town, though perhaps a little more stressful, is more interesting and thus more likely to keep you alert and focussed. You can also fairly easily pull off the road for a rest - something you can only do on motorways every 10-15 miles (ball park).

Now if you could get the car to do the boring bit, that would be really useful, even if you don't have the option to drink (who really cares?) or fall asleep (at least you could relax).

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Re: It's too Black and White

"the motorways are relatively stress-free."

But for long journeys, they are the longest and most tiring part. If you could drive 15 minutes to get on the motorway and relax for a couple of hours before having to take over for 15 minutes that would be great.

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Re: It's too Black and White

Taxi's are inconvenient and expensive.

If you want to visit a few pubs of an evening, or travel more than a short distance, the cost quickly adds up. The cab fare to where I spend many Saturday evenings is about £12 each way. Turn that into a proper night out and you're quickly spending more on transport than you are on booze.

Also there's no possibility of going for a few pints if you're spending a (fixed) fortune on cab fare. Autonomous cars open up more flexibility.

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Re: It's too Black and White

get on the motorway and relax for a couple of hours

That is in principle achievable using existing technology because you have a segragated, pedestrian-free environment, limited exits and plenty of space to install roadside equipment, the downside being that you'd only be able to permit suitably equipped vehicles on the road.

Perhaps you could wall off the outside lane of the motorway, stick a cable down the middle and reserve it for cable-following vehicles that were aware of the position and speed of the vehicle ahead of them. That would solve the problem of road signs being obscured and other drivers breaking into the middle of convoys. It might also introduce Audi drivers to lanes of the motorway they have not hitherto explored.

The thing about truly autonomous vehicles is that a lot of the technology (the ability to recognise road markings, traffic signs, stop lights, etc) is only of any value while there are still human drivers around. Once you get rid of those, you'd likely go back to more traditional and reliable forms of vehicle control.

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Anonymous Coward

Zebra crossings

Talking of black and white, have a think about zebra crossings. I spent sometime over christmas with a relative who was enthusing about self driving cars, so I asked him about zebra crossings.

When you drive towards a crossing the driver normally (I do, and I assume others do) scan both sides for approaching pedestrians. Sometimes a pedestrian may be walking towards the corssing, but planning to walk by and not cross. Sometimes a pedestrian may be standing at the crossing but not inetnding to cross (ie. yapping on the phone, or even to another human being). It's pretty much all to do with momentary eye contact. If the pedstrian makes eye contact with the driver and looks both ways along the road when approaching the crosssing there is a good chance he is intending to cross and the car will slow/stop. If he makes no eye contact and doesn't look around him, chances are he is not going to cross. Can an automated vehicle detect this behaviour/eye contact/body language from a pedestrian 20 -100 metres way?

And that is just one of the many questions in need of answering - The Holborn effect indeed.

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Re: Zebra crossings

Along the same lines how would driverless cars cope with a mixed environment containing cars still driven by people? What happens, as happened to me the other day, a motorist indicates wrongly on a roundabout (indicated one junction too early). From looking at the car's road positioning, the way the driver was looking etc it was obvious that they weren't going to leave where they were indicating towards so I waited. How would driverless cars deal with this? Ignore al indicators and only move when the roundabout is clear?

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Re: It's too Black and White

Err... you mean the non-killer app.

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Re: It's too Black and White

Taxis are really expensive. A taxi home from the nearest large city to me would be the thick end of fifty quid. The cheapest a friend has ever managed is thirty something.

No night buses (used to be possible to take a bus, and then a 12-15 quid taxi, a tad more reasonable). Trains stop a bit after eleven - so that's what I take, unless I'm willing not to drink, and drive in.

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Re: It's too Black and White

" Lets have roadways (motorways) that are fully automated"

And when the automation goes TITSUP?

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Re: It's too Black and White

"Surely that's called a taxi (black, mini or uber flavoured) or one of the gang doesn't drink."

The one time we resorted to booking a cab for that purpose after a company do I had the experience of being fully alert and watching our driver T-bone a car that had slowly pulled out of a side road, initially some hundreds ahead, most of which we travelled before said driver though it might be an idea to brake.

To give the driver his due he was very efficient after the crash. He got on the blower and got a colleague to come and remove all witnesses his passengers from the scene of the accident PDQ.

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Re: It's too Black and White

"I find the worst part of motorway driving - and the most potentially lethal - is getting bored driving long straight roads with little or no interest to stop you from nodding off"

This is a solved problem. All those "smart" motorways with their close spaced speed cameras and changeable, arbitrary speed limits are guaranteed to impose sufficient stress to keep you awake.

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Re: It's too Black and White

@jmch

If you could drive 15 minutes to get on the motorway

ROFL! Nearest M-way is about 2 hours drive away!

(Which is actually a good thing, as it discourages visitors)

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Re: Zebra crossings

@Not also etc

'Indicators' - are just that, an indication, not a statement of fact. I remember a case some years ago, driver was waiting to pull out onto main road, another car approaching from right on the main road, indicating to turn left (i.e. into the road of the waiting driver). Waiting driver assumes he can safely pull out, does so, and oncoming vehicle drives straight into his side. Verdict: blame entirely on the person who pulled out. Right of way goes to the vehicle on the main road, indicators just suggest.

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Coat

Re: It's too Black and White

. I find the worst part of motorway driving - and the most potentially lethal - is getting bored driving long straight roads with little or no interest to stop you from nodding off.

Try driving faster and closer to the vehicle in front, that'll keep you perky.

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Re: It's too Black and White

most people would want a truly driverless car (not the kind where you have to pay attention to take over) so that they can drink, which they couldn't if they had to drive at both ends of the journey. The other is that the most stressful parts of a journey tend to be the town bits at the end - the motorways are relatively stress-free.

Most people want a flying car and a jetpack too, but they can only have what technology can reliably offer them.

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Re: It's too Black and White

Bangem is absolutely correct. Don't you ever have to do boring long motorway and dual carriageway journeys when you wish you could just switch off and doze, or do some work on your laptop, or something? I don't mind taking over and doing a bit of driving round town at the beginning and end of my journey. It would be like travelling by train, and I love going by train if I can because the time isn't wasted and I can get on with some work, but there isn't always a good connection to where I'm going, or I might need my car at the other end or have a lot of stuff to take. Hybrid self driving cars like the Tesla are here already and will soon be licensed for self driving operation. In a few years we'll all wonder what the fuss was about and how we ever did without them.

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Re: It's too Black and White

"All or nothing is never going to work, "

Yes but All is the only thing of real value.

Some just means you can dick around on farcebook or twatter during the simple parts of the drive, which just isn't worth much. The best I can see is lorry drivers being able to work longer shifts if they can spend some of it asleep or resting.

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Re: It's too Black and White

"drive to the pub"

By the time we have autonomous cars I doubt there will be any pubs left.

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NXM

Re: It's too Black and White

The driverless car that takes you home from the pub was invented by a bloke with a horse & cart years ago. The horse knew the way home so all the milkman had to do was lie on the cart and say 'giddy up, dobbin'.

Sadly he was banned from using this system (as far as I remember) by the court which deemed milkyman to be in charge and not dobbin. Killjoys.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: It's too Black and White

If you are worried about boredom/falling asleep during motorway driving, just play the "braking" game – see how far you can go without touching your brakes.

You will suddenly become super-alert to what is going to happen in front and behind in 20 seconds time, you may become a considerably better driver in doing so, and the miles will fly by crazy-fast with no loss of alertness.

And then suddenly, you find you are in Bridgwater! (I know, that's the downside.)

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Trollface

Re: It's too Black and White

"I doubt there will be any pubs left"

Don't be silly - I can't remember seeing any dystopia / post-apocalyptic whatever where the booze shack wasn't the last building remaining...

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MJI
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Re: It's too Black and White

I find a way of dealing with motorway boredom but comes with licence risks.

It is see how fast I can go.

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Re: It's too Black and White

I disagree with what you say about motorway driving. It's not stressful, but it's tiring and boring. But there can be no real halfway house - either you're in control and concentrating, or you're not. A car that could do the motorway driving for me would be one I'd consider buying.

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Re: It's too Black and White

"If you are worried about boredom/falling asleep during motorway driving, just play the "braking" game – see how far you can go without touching your brakes."

That's how I was taught to drive. Anticipation is your friend.

I remember taking the company car in for a 10k service. Was told the brake pads would need changing before the next service. At the next service I was told the same thing. Next service after that, the pads finally needed replacing.

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Re: Zebra crossings

Human drivers are hopeless at that.

We have a bus station where I occasionally wait for a bus. Sometimes - typically if needing to get upwind of a smoker, though perhaps also to watch for the bus - I'll wander out to the pavement in front. As soon as I do that, I'm near a zebra. I can be leaning on the railings and obviously going nowhere, but still most of the cars slow right down as if to let me cross. I find myself walking away from my preferred spot simply to get away from the crossing and stop them doing that!

I rather suspect an AI driver might do rather better than the average human at detecting a human who is not interested in crossing the road.

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Re: It's too Black and White

I've owned two cars in my lifetime (and will never have a third). Also two motorbikes (and ditto).

Never once changed brake pads. Like John Brown, I regarded it as normal to anticipate, and to make very, very little use of brakes. So they don't wear out.

Also very good for the fuel consumption.

(Cycling is different. Particularly when it's commuting in city traffic).

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Re: It's too Black and White

"Taxi's are inconvenient and expensive."

The most expensive part is the driver. As soon as self-driving cars can eliminate them the cost of taking a taxi will probably be less than that of maintaining your own car.

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Coaching

A modest proposal: One way to solve the golf clubs problem is to, like the very early days of motoring, split the body work from the drive train - in the early parts of the twentieth century you used to buy a chassis and get a coachbuilder to put something on top. Leave your bodywork up on bricks in your drive with your clubs in it and whistle up an autonomous drivetrain to slot itself underneath when you need it. The drives can do robot things when there's nobody aboard, when the coachworks's on top a driver's in control. On long journey's instead of waiting for charge you could just change the horses like on old coaching inn.

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Re: Coaching

My word, that's brilliant. We could have some that contain a bed and call them a Caravan. Others could be open backed, they'd be called trailers.

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Re: Coaching

Another way to solve the golf club problem: leave the clubs locked up at the golf course.

Another way to solve the problem: have the clubs delivered to a course of your choice. This would be an extension of the delivery infrastructure that Amazon et al are developing - your stuff following you around like Rincewind's Luggage.

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Re: Coaching

It's such an obviously good idea, I wonder what the major flaw is?

Containerisation transformed freight operations: doing the same for people with standardised car passenger cabin-and-boot (trunk) modules with even semi-autonomous drivetrains would transform driving. You could buy a cabin and keep the golf-clubs in it permanently, and rent drivetrains as you needed them. There's a weight and engineering cost in making the cabin and boot removable, but it sounds great.

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Re: Coaching

I'd have the same issue as with charging EVs.. I'd need somewhere for the body to sit waiting for it's drive train. Or is it going to stand on legs in the road?

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FAIL

>> have the clubs delivered to a course of your choice

Presumably by a driverless vehicle?

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Re: Coaching

Yet another way to solve the golf problem: don't play that ridiculous, landscape-ruining game at all and take the things you need with you when you actually need them.

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It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

...so, in the words of Ms. Rice-Davis, he would say that wouldn't he.

My observation is that, even with massive subsidies from the tax payer, the train service isn't what you might wish.

Time will tell of course, but my money, if I had any, would be on the autonomous cars. Imagine this, you go to work in your car. When you get there you go into work, then your car goes to work as an autonomous taxi, returning later to take you home. After dropping you at home the car works the taxi night shift. I don't think The Holborn Effect will stand in the way of that.

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

"Time will tell of course, but my money, if I had any, would be on the autonomous cars. Imagine this, you go to work in your car. When you get there you go into work, then your car goes to work as an autonomous taxi, returning later to take you home. After dropping you at home the car works the taxi night shift. I don't think The Holborn Effect will stand in the way of that."

1) Not with your golf clubs in the back and child seat in it it won't.

2) How much taxi work do you think you can pick up if everyone's car is doing that?

3) He's saying you won't get an autonomous urban car any time soon, so what it does while you're at work isn't the problem. Mixed-mode car (autonomous on motorways/major trunk roads, manual off them) is much easier, but of course few taxis operate like this, and most journeys are urban.

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

"your car goes to work as an autonomous taxi"

Not my car, with my stuff in it, that I pay the insurance on, that I clean...

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Anonymous Coward

Fixed that for you

You go to work in your car, but arrive late because those pesky kids were playing around by sticking a red led on a lamppost again, and the car thought it was a traffic light. Your boss calls you in and says you are fired. You end up standing on the street, but your car is nowhere to be seen, as it is busy couriering drugs over to the estate. When it finally does turn up you trundle home at 5 miles an hour, because the batteries are a bit flat. After dropping you home the car works a taxi night shift. Too bad that you left the keys and your phone on the passenger seat, so you spend the night shivering in your garden shed. When it arrives home at 5 am, its arguable which is worse, the puke on the floor or those suspicious stains. After cleaning it up you head out to the Jobs Centre, but halfway along the journey the car pulls in to the local police station...'would you like to explain your role in this drug's gang we just busted....'

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aks

Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

If that arrangement came to pass, the car is a money-earning investment. Many fewer people would own one.

One thing I have never seen mentioned is that the car drops you at the office then autonomously takes itself to the car park. When you need it, you simply summon it and it rolls up to the door. I'd then take over control to fight my way through the traffic, running down anybody who set their foot on the road. You've got to get your kicks somewhere. ;)

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

"Many fewer people would own one."

This.

Wolmar's problem is, he's imagining that autonomous cars will be owned like current cars are - everyone buys one and it sits doing bugger all for 90% of the day. Why in God's name would I want to spend £20,000+ on something I'm not going to use much?

About 60% of the cost of a taxi is the driver's pay. if we eliminate that from the equation, then an autonomous taxi service suddenly becomes dirt cheap. Like, public transport cheap. Only you can take it to a precise destination.

Autonomous vehicles will basically abolish mass vehicle ownership. You'll sign up to a subscription with some company, who will send you a vehicle on demand, drive you where you're going, and then it'll sod off and pick up the next guy. 'But I like to keep my golf clubs in the car!' is not a sensible argument against the hard laws of economics; it will be cheaper and easier to not own a car while still achieving the same results owning a car did, so people will stop owning cars. There'll be some exceptions - prestige cars, people who live in remote areas not serviced by a company etc - but in most large conurbations it'll be economically viable to simply not own a car at all.

As for the 'Holborn Problem'... scraping the barrel a bit, isn't it? I mean, seriously, you might as well say the same thing for human drivers. And where was pedestrianizing these areas from his comprehensive list of two possible solutions?

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

"Many fewer people would own one."

Disagree. Cars are for a lot of people a status symbol. It might not be to you, but why do so many people spend £20,000+ on a vehicle when they can get one which does the same functionality for a lot less? Why does Tesla make very expensive electric cars instead of very cheap ones? Status.

I think we'll just end up with the same situation we have now except the cars will be electric and self driving. The numbers won't go down unless the cars are priced or legislated out of ordinary peoples' reach.

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Meh

Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

The taxi fare is £8 from the railway station to my home. Knock 60% off, and it's still £3.20 for 1 1/2 miles. That's still way more than the 50p per mile that a private car costs.

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

"After dropping you at home the car works the taxi night shift"

And your next day starts with cleaning out the various organic remains last night's passengers left in it. Or do you wait up to do that as soon as it returns from its night shift?

"I don't think The Holborn Effect will stand in the way of that."

Why not? If the Holborn Effect is operational it might be waiting miles away when you want to pick you up from work.

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

"Why in God's name would I want to spend £20,000+ on something I'm not going to use much?"

Is that the best you can manage? You'd spend it for exactly the same reason as you do with a non-autonomous car: it's there when you need it. If you're expecting to use an automated cab then you should also expect to spend a long time waiting for it because everyone else who thought the same way as you would be wanting to use the limited pool of cars at the same time. One in N times you'd be the lucky one to get prompt service and block out N others, otherwise, just stand there and wait.

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

I live in Edinburgh, where there is a well established City Car Club. And yet, only a tiny fraction of inhabitants are members and many of those who are use it as cheap access to a second car.

There is absolutely no need to pay £20k for a car. Those who do so will not be satisfied with something shared.

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

"Why in God's name would I want to spend £20,000+ on something I'm not going to use much?"

Because otherwise you'll have to leave for work at 6 am and come home at 8 pm, because you'll find that the fleet of pods is mysteriously difficult to book during the rush hour.

The company buying the pods doesn't want to spend £20,000+ on something you're not going to use either...

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Re: It appears from the article that Mr. Wolmar is a railway enthusiast...

Would the "autonomous taxi" be self cleaning - I certainly hope so....

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