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Road test

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Realizing the benefits of driverless cars will require governments to embrace the technology.

The government funding agency Innovate UK has launched a £10-million (US$15-million) project to study how autonomous, self-driving vehicles will fit into daily life in four parts of England: Greenwich, Coventry, Milton Keynes and Bristol.

Good job. That is the right kind of question to ask about driverless cars. As described in a News Feature on page 20, developers such as Google are making rapid progress on the vehicles. From a technical standpoint, the cars could be ready for widespread deployment within a decade. But when and how they will hit the streets depends on how well people accept and trust them.

Consider, for example, the obvious economic question: will people be able to afford them? Thanks to the need for sophisticated equipment, the vehicles are likely to be much more expensive than their conventional counterparts, at least initially. And that means that buyers will need to see correspondingly large benefits.

A frequently cited benefit is safety: advocates insist that the vehicles could all but eliminate accidents. But convincing people that driverless cars can do away with human accidents and not make robot-minded mistakes of their own is likely to take a good number of years and millions of kilometres of accident-free test drives.

And when accidents do happen — as they surely will — public reaction will depend on the specifics of the event, and those are hard to predict. The legal issues may be even tougher. Right now, equipment failures are rare and the responsibility almost always rests with a driver. But with driverless vehicles, the courts and insurance companies will have to figure out how to apportion liability among the vehicle’s occupants (who may be dozing off), the car maker, the software developers and even the mapping algorithm.

Another much-touted benefit is fuel efficiency. But that is unlikely to be realized until most cars are equipped with systems that allow them to communicate with one another (called V2V systems) and with traffic signals to minimize stop-and-go traffic.

Of course, some wealthy people will doubtless take the plunge. But the most important early adopters will probably be fleet operators: driverless ride-share systems could function as a new form of mass transit. And if the door-to-door service encourages more people to give up their car, then some of the vast areas devoted to parking could be put to other uses.

Governments are likely to be crucial to the transition — not least because many of the benefits accrue to society as a whole. A good example is being set by the United States, which is considering a mandate that would greatly speed up the transition by requiring V2V radios in every new US car. Other countries should follow suit. To make such moves fully effective, however, local governments will need to start upgrading roadways with smart signals designed to optimize traffic flow — assuming they can find the money.

Related links

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Related links in Nature Research

Autonomous vehicles: No drivers required 2015-Feb-04

Innovation: Superpowered invention 2013-Sep-18

Sustainable mobility: A vision of our transport future 2013-May-08

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Road test. Nature 518, 6 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/518006a

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