ITS professionals split over driverless car investment

The UK’s Intelligent Transport Industry seems to be split over whether taxpayers’ money should be spent on the development of driverless cars.

At the ITS (UK) Summit in Bristol, a panel of experts debated the motion “This House believes that driverless vehicles are the biggest opportunity for a step change in mobility and therefore it is right that resources and investment are channelled towards them,” and at the end 48% agreed with this, while 52% disagreed.

This showed a change in opinion compared to the vote taken before the vote began when 56% agreed with the statement, and 44% opposed.

Supporting the debate, Giles Perkins, the Technical Director of Future mobility at WSP pointed to the benefits in terms of road safety and a “revolution” in mobility, with driverless vehicles “blurring the lines” between public transport and private motoring. He said driverless cars will be good for people in rural areas and for those who do not want to, or cannot, drive cars. He also pointed to land use benefits, a reduced need for parking and better vehicle utilisation.

His fellow supporter, Professor Tony Pipe of the University of West of England said the technology clearly was about safety because while human mistakes are the cause of most of the accidents, driverless vehicles, “don’t get bored, they have 360 degree view and response times ten times faster than people.”

However opponent and the author of “Driverless Cars, On The Road To Nowhere”, Christian Wolmar dismissed this saying, “there is actual no proof that they will be safer. Not enough miles have been driven to give us any basis for an opinion on their safety benefits, and in testing there have been countless interventions where people have had to take over control. If you take people off public transport [as driverless vehicles may well do] it will increase congestion,” adding that the money and time spent on the technology, ”is crowding out the space for useful research for other solutions – this is pie in the sky.”

Steve Gooding of the RAC Foundation, who also opposed the motion, questioned the role of the taxpayer in funding research, “I don’t care if Waymo and Uber spend money, but I am more bothered about how the Government spend its – or rather my – money. There are better things to spend money on.” He also said that he doubted the ability of the technology to reduce congestion.

All the panelists recognized that there is a lot of hype around the technology and generally rejected what they called the “dystopian” prospect of banning human driven cars except in very specific circumstances. They also agreed that if private companies wished to invest their own money in the technology, nobody could criticize this.

Chair of the session, Andy Graham of White Willow Consulting, commented that evidence must constantly be gathered to counter, or justify, any “hype” and that “early steps are needed to connect vehicles and make transport better, otherwise AVs cannot succeed”.

While not surprisingly the panelists remained committed to their relative positions, the 8% swing towards disagreeing with the motion suggests some of the near 200 people at the inaugural event were swayed by the argument that money could be better spent elsewhere.

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