How will we coexist with autonomous vehicles?

I’ve recently began advanced driving tuition with the IAM RoadSmart programme (formerly the Institute of Advanced Motorists). Although I passed my standard driving test well over 20 years ago, I enjoy the challenge of driving and wanted to develop my skills further to be a safer driver.

On the face of it, with autonomous vehicles due on our roads within five years, the idea of looking to invest time into what may become a dying art might seem churlish. It’s going to be a much-missed social activity, a nostalgic pastime probably, one that will satisfy misty-eyed drivers – including myself I expect – using virtual reality headsets and mocked up vehicle interiors.

My advanced driving observer, a retiree who has held an IAM qualification for about as long as I’ve been driving, gently suggests that the advanced driving programme has become slightly easier in recent times. The push-pull steering technique is, mercifully, less stringent and even coasting with the clutch down is allowed if the car is in gear. Oh yes, gears. It’s a fair prediction that shifting gears manually will go west eventually. A colleague and I were discussing what approaches would-be drivers might take if they were starting out on the road today, and the automatic-only licence would appear to make most sense, given the rise of EVs and hybrids with automatic transmissions.

In a previous blog, I looked at the social challenges of running an EV, including where you might be able to charge it. We have a journey ahead of us, one that requires a population to happily migrate from doing one thing to another and build a critical mass so that others will follow. Yet with all this autonomy, on the roads at least, how will we all coexist?

There will be no “big bang”, where manually-operated vehicles are switched off for good one day and we hit the roads in our driverless pods the next. The rate of change in the artificial intelligence of these vehicles will be rapid too. The way your autonomous car operates could differ between one day and the next after an overnight operating system update. Or, more likely, your car will use deep learning to gradually improve its driving skills, much as human beings (in theory) do the same with age.

One of the principles of advanced driving is patience with other road users, and the importance of remaining calm and objective even if you’re the victim of road rage. It’s almost a given that autonomous vehicles, particularly early versions, will be relatively tentative movers, giving way to new “auto rage” as that steering wheel-holding Luddite blasts his horn to convey distaste at the computer’s lack of progress along the road. And then, as he tears by dangerously, the self-driving car detects a potential collision and slams the brakes on, jolting its occupants to the manual driver’s delight.

I liked the road-rage countering Transport for London’s Share the Road campaign. It offers up the simple understanding that we’re all just trying to get somewhere. Yet this will need to be turned up a lot further when we welcome our first autonomous vehicles to join cars, trucks, bikes, buses and everyone else on our tarmac. Navigating a road network is more than just finding and making your way; there is a responsibility to other road users in terms of sociability, courtesy and respect.

learner-driver-ripping-up-her-l-plate
Fewer of us are doing this these days

We also have to consider driving needs and trends. For decades, passing your driving test at age 17 was an absolute rite of passage. Today’s millennials couldn’t be less interested; the sheer expense of learning to drive, buying and running a car plus the digital journey into a service-only culture must make the business of operating a vehicle look utterly pointless. In the UK, the number of drivers taking tests has declined from 1.762 million in 2007/08 to 1.537 million in 2015/16, a drop of nearly 13%.

But there will be a period of coexistence that, among everything else autonomous vehicles have to process, and what I still have to practice for my Advanced Driving Test, will be challenging.

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