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A Hundred-Year-Old Race to the Future: Where Are the Autonomous Cars?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Self-driving cars have long been dreamed about - but also explored and researched. And yet, almost a century after the first experiments were conducted, and despite the fact that the required technology is already developed, autonomous cars have yet to hit the roads. What is preventing their implication and why is it taking so long?


In our latest "Wikistrat Insider" episode, Andrew Morris, a Professor of Human Factors in Transport Safety, explains how these cars will impact not only our streets - but even our relationships, why there's a greater chance a Scandinavian country, rather than Japan, will be the first to go "autonomous," and why we won't own a car in the future.


Andrew Morris is a Professor of Human Factors in Transport Safety and leads the Behavioural Safety Research and Injury Prevention Research Group at Loughborough University.



Full Transcript:


Marina Guimarães:

Have you ever thought about sitting in a driver's seat of a car you're not driving? Sounds futuristic. And although the race to develop autonomous cars has been slower than we expected, we might still have some time to pick a pace. Here, Mr. Andrew Morris, a specialist in human factors in transport safety will discuss autonomous cars, what country will be the first to implement them, and explain the main reason why these cars aren't widespread yet.


Marina Guimarães:

We invited Mr. Andrew Morris, a Professor of Human Factors in Transport Safety at Loughborough University. Mr. Morris, thank you so much for joining us here today.


Andrew Morris:

Thank you for inviting me.


Marina Guimarães:

So, first of all, what are the benefits of adapting to self-driving cars?


Andrew Morris:

Well, likely to be several benefits or predicted benefits. One of which is safety. So autonomous cars can see faster and react faster than humans. Then the expectation is that they will be safer because they will be able to respond to emergency situations much quicker than say an ordinary driver would be able to. There are advantages from mobility. So many people will get to a certain age where they decide that they don't want to drive anymore because they feel unsafe on the roads. So if you have an autonomous vehicle that can take away the responsibility of driving from you, and you're an older person and you want to stay mobile, then that gives you the opportunity to be able to get around the place and therefore be socially inclusive. So there are several advantages, probably more than I've just touched upon from many different facets of life.


Marina Guimarães:

So, you mentioned that an autonomous car is safer, so then it's not more likely to cause an accident.


Andrew Morris:

Well, the data is a little bit sketchy in this area, but Waymo, in particular, have done lots of work where they've had their vehicles traveling around in cities, in the USA, particularly San Francisco, I think, where they have recorded many hundreds of thousands of miles with very, very few accidents. And when the accidents have tended to occur, they are usually the responsibility of the other drivers who don't appreciate that the Waymo car is sticking fairly rigidly by the road rules.


Andrew Morris:

So what tends to happen is the Waymo car will come to traffic lights, for example, the traffic lights will change to amber, the Waymo car will slow down. Now as a human driver, you might decide that you could get through the lights before the amber phase has changed to red. So you might speed up and go through lights. And that's perfectly normal to do that, people do that every day. But the Waymo car wouldn't do that. And if you're expecting that car to also go through the lights, then there's a chance you might collide with the rear of it. And I think this is what Waymo found, that lots of the crashes that involved Waymo vehicles were these sort of catch up crashes at intersections where the human driver wasn't really expecting the autonomous vehicle to break in the way that it was doing, simply because he was obeying the road rules.


Marina Guimarães:

And what have about the legal obstacles? So the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission proposed a creation of an Automated Vehicles Act, which would exempt the person in the driving seat from legal consequences. Who then would be responsible in the case of an accident?


Andrew Morris:

Yeah, I think this is another gray area, that's still being very much debated, particularly as you say, with the Law Commission being so active in the UK and trying to work through these issues and ethical issues for that matter, which still haven't necessarily been ironed out. One of the big things is who is responsible for the crash in the event that the autonomous vehicle is unfortunately involved in some sort of event. Recent reports suggested that actually the driver has no responsibility.


Andrew Morris:

So it's all the responsibility of the vehicle. And that seems a little bit harsh, especially if the driver, for example, has done something untoward, so maybe they're drunk or they fell asleep, or they did something in the autonomous vehicle that maybe they shouldn't have done. The vehicle crashes and yet the fault is then pinned upon the vehicle technology rather than the driver. So this is one of the big gray areas that needs to be sort of decided upon, I think before we can proceed, who is responsible in the event that the vehicle crashes or that something goes wrong. And I think we're a long way from deciding that as yet.


Marina Guimarães:

And are self-driving cars an alternative to clean energy?


Andrew Morris:

Well, self-driving cars are electric. So it's the same argument saying are electric cars good for clean energy? Overall, you would say, yes, they are because there are no emissions from electric cars. But the problem is of course the power has to come from somewhere. So it probably has to come from power stations. So it goes back to the argument of saying, "Well, electric cars are not quite as clean as we might like to think." Because at the end of the day, the power has to come from a power station or some sort of generation center, which by itself could be pumping out emissions into the atmosphere. But overall, I think if we've got a whole fleet of autonomous cars, which are essentially electric cars, then I think obviously the emissions from those vehicles is very minimal compared to what we have now with the conventional power trains, et cetera.


Marina Guimarães:

And what about infrastructure requirements? You mentioned that there will be power stations, so streets will be required to adapt.


Andrew Morris:

So I think there's got to be a different way of charging the vehicles. So having more charge points, or maybe making batteries more efficient. I know the battery technology is improving all the time and maybe we'll reach the point where the range becomes much greater than what we have at the moment. So from a charging point of view, yes, I think the infrastructure has got to change.


Andrew Morris:

But the other thing about autonomous cars is that they will need to communicate with their environment and they'll need to communicate with other vehicles. So there needs to be a change in how the infrastructure is able to do that. So how it recognizes that a car is in its vicinity. So what sort of technology do you implement onto the roads? How do you change the road layouts so that the vehicles can maneuver without any confusion? What do they do about things like roadworks, which maybe are not in their algorithms? And what do they do about lane markings, which might deteriorate over time and maybe disappear or become obscured when the weather conditions are not ideal? So the infrastructure issues are very real as well. And they're being worked through, I think, and gradually we'll get to a point where more and more reliability is evident. But there's still things to think about before we can be fully confident that we can lease these vehicles without any problems, as far as the infrastructure is concerned.


Marina Guimarães:

And why is this race for self-driving cars taking so long? Is it closer than what we thought it would be?


Andrew Morris:

Well, I think the technology is there already, so we could probably implement a fleet of autonomous cars if we had to. But there's too many questions that remain unanswered and safety is one of them for sure. We still don't know with complete confidence that these things are safe, they won't be abused by people. We don't know much about the types of journeys that people will make and how they're going to use them. We've talked about the range of the vehicles and the battery power. We talked about whether will people be able to afford these vehicles. They're likely to be quite expensive. If you buy a Tesla now you're looking already at 30 to 40,000 pounds.


Andrew Morris:

I think a fully autonomous vehicle is going to be very expensive in the near future. And it's not for several years until the technology becomes more and more, I guess, available that the prices will start to come down. So another factor is cost and then you've got a mixture of fleet. So if you've got a mixture of autonomous vehicles and non-autonomous vehicles sharing the same space, how do they interact with one another? How do they recognize what each other is going to do? There's a lot of unpredictability with human drivers and autonomous vehicles, and they've got to understand how they can co-exist on the roads. Not only that, but I think we've not really nailed down how autonomous vehicles are going to interact with road users who are a little bit more unpredictable, so pedestrians and cyclists and motorcyclists.


Andrew Morris:

I think the autonomous vehicle algorithms are very much in tune with what other passenger vehicles will do, but not necessarily with cyclists and motorcyclists, and pedestrians. So if you have these unpredictable road users using the roads as well, or sharing the roads with the autonomous vehicles, then you could see how the vulnerable road users could be disadvantaged. And that could cause all sorts of problems from a safety point of view. So lots of unanswered questions. More besides that, I probably haven't mentioned there, but I think it's going to be a while before we can be confident that these things are reliable and safe, and ready for widespread implementation.


Marina Guimarães:

And which country do you think would be the pioneer when it comes to having and adapting to self-driving cars?


Andrew Morris:

Ooh, that's a very good question. And there are some countries which are quite well advanced in this. I think the Netherlands has got a very good self-driving car activity going on, so they could be one of the first. I know Norway has got a very large fleet of electric vehicles. So they also are in the running to have widespread implementation. And then if you look to the Far East and Japan and Korea, they also got very, very large programs of autonomous vehicle testing. My feeling or my suggestion is that where you've got the least crowded roads, so the countries which have maybe smaller populations and fewer numbers of vehicles, but you've got more space with which to run the vehicles, then those are the sorts of countries that are going to be the first to have these vehicles running around on the roads. So maybe, for example, Norway, some of the Scandinavian countries where you've got huge amounts of land and smaller populations and smaller numbers of vehicles.


Marina Guimarães:

And how does the semiconductors' shortage affect the development of self-driving cars? You mentioned a high cost. Will we need government initiatives in order to provide people to adapt to this new technology?


Andrew Morris:

Yeah well, I hope people won't be divisive at all and I don't think anybody would want that. But I mean, there has been some discussion and I'm not saying I necessarily agree or disagree with this, that people won't actually own their car in the future. And that with autonomous vehicles, what we will do is just summon an autonomous car whenever we need it. If you think of your own personal car at the moment, I know my car sits on the drive for probably 98% of the time, and maybe I use it for 2% of the time. So it's standing there idle and depreciating the whole time.


Andrew Morris:

If you've got an autonomous vehicle, which is capable of being driven around reliably for 24 hours a day, why don't you just summon a car whenever you need it? And when you finish with it and it moves onto the next person. And I guess it's a bit like the e-scooter rental agreements that we have at the moment. That's probably a model for what might come. So whenever you need an electric car or an autonomous car, you simply go and pick one up from the nearest autonomous car docking station, and away you go. And I can't see why that couldn't become a reality. I know they do it already with things like smart cars in some cities. So from that point of view, hopefully, the availability for autonomous cars will be for all, and not just a few.


Marina Guimarães:

Mr. Morris, I have one last question. Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the development of self-driving vehicles?


Andrew Morris:

Good question. I think there was lots going on behind the scenes with regard to some of the testing work on autonomous vehicles. So although most of the people involved in its development and testing would've had to take their own precautions as far as COVID is concerned. I think there was still quite a good rate of progress with regard to looking at the efficacy of these systems and looking at safety and reliability issues. So I don't think things slowed down too much as a result of COVID. Not as much as maybe it did in other areas. So I think things are still moving quite quickly in that field.


Marina Guimarães:

Mr. Morris, thank you so much. There are many more questions I could ask, but our time is almost done. So thank you so much for agreeing to participate.


Andrew Morris:

Thanks for the opportunity. Thanks for being invited.

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