Will self-driving cars become a reality?

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The world may be on the cusp of a transport revolution. The prototypes tested by Google and Tesla on the streets of America have led to suggestions that the human element – with all its miscalculations, risk-taking and other flaws – could soon be removed from the motor vehicle.

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The potential benefits are huge – but are they realistic?

Self-driving cars offer hope
Autonomous vehicles (AVs) can potentially be safer than human drivers. McKinsey & Co have estimated that a switch to AVs could eliminate around 90% of all traffic accidents, saving up to US$190 billion a year in health costs and damages in the US alone.

AVs are also more efficient road users, which could lead to less congestion, more efficient freight – and even more space for pedestrians and cycle lanes. But that’s not all: AVs could pave the way for a full transition to electric vehicles, with huge improvements in air quality and carbon emissions. On top of all this, AVs can enable immense productivity gains – freeing up ‘would-be drivers’ to work or read on the road.

They may never be totally autonomous
But is it at all realistic? Tesla claims that it will be producing fully autonomous vehicles by 2018. By this, it means “level 4” autonomy; the car drives itself safely for an entire trip – but only within its “operational design domain”. The driver would have to take over during bad weather, in unmapped areas or if there is no access to a data network.

This raises some big questions: If bad weather knocks out AV systems, will human drivers step in fast enough? How will AVs be insured if the driver is not responsible for the car’s actions at all times? How will AVs cope in complex places where random events and unfamiliar events happen often? Can they distinguish between a paper bag and a large rock? It would seem that “level 5” autonomy – a car able to drive itself in all places and conditions – is therefore still something of a pipe dream.

Big obstacles in their path
These and other questions have led to some scepticism that AVs will become widely used as quickly as Silicon Valley might suggest. Some worry that AVs could redesign cities in undesirable ways, incentivising the creation of hermetically sealed routes running through urban areas to prevent interaction with pedestrians or cyclists.

At the same time, the real environmental and public realm benefits will only accrue if people give up private vehicle ownership and embrace vehicle or journey sharing. Without this change in attitude, the outcomes may turn out to be even less sustainable.

Let’s be cautiously optimistic
Autonomous vehicles are definitely on their way and there is no doubt that they will change our cities. While they may have huge upsides there are bound to be downsides. The role of consultation, and governance, will be extremely important – and we should not let the incorrigible optimism and technodazzle of Silicon Valley convince us that there will not be unforeseen and undesirable consequences.

Article written by Jon Neale, Head of UK Research at JLL, and edited by Laura Jockers and Emilija Emma.

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