via Telegraph : Driverless Cars, Hypersonic Tunnels, No More Traffic Lights… Is This The Future of Travel?
Regular visitors to the Goodwood Festival of Speed speak of a certain tang in the air. The annual four-day event sees a fleet of classic race cars and modern supermachines take it in turns to compete up the festival’s ‘Hillclimb’, a 1.16- mile track that winds its way through Lord March’s 11,500-acre estate.
Intoxicating whiffs of throaty exhaust mingle with fresh, South Downs oxygen, creating a potion that’s joyfully inhaled by hundreds of thousands of spectators, who watch while soaking up the early summer sun. However, go down to Goodwood this year and you might be in for a surprise.
In among all the combustion engines, there will be a collection of vehicles that call into question the future of mobility as we know it. Future Lab, an exhibition instigated by Lord March himself, promises to collate the big ideas that are jostling to shape the next generation of human travel, from driverless cars to hypersonic underground travel.
The big players | Driverless cars
The internet giant announced that it was developing driverless cars in 2009 and began testing them on California’s roads in 2012. In February 2016, Google said it bore “some responsibility” after one of its self-driving cars struck a bus in a minor crash. Before that, its vehicles had driven more than one million miles without an incident that was the car’s fault, according to the company.
Google has said it plans to make its cars available to the public in 2020
Believed by many industry experts to be the closest to bringing a fully autonomous car to market. The manufacturer, which owns Mercedes, has spent years developing self-driving features for its high-end models.
“Time and space will become the luxury goods of the future ,” lead engineer Ralf Herrtwich told Robotics & Automation News in April 2016
The American motor giant is keen to show it is at the forefront of developing new car technology and says its cars have equalled Google in reaching “level 4” autonomy. Ford has been rumoured to be in discussions with Google about a tie-up on driverless tech
An icon of the electric car movement, Tesla has also been rapidly adding semi-autonomous technology to its high-end vehicles. This includes autopilot, which allows cars to navigate by themselves in many scenarios, as well as Summon, which allows Tesla owners to order cars to their door via a smartphone. In October 2016, Tesla said self-driving technology would be in all cars
The future of Uber’s ride-hailing app could be cars that get you between points without needing a driver, a scenario that could dramatically bring down prices. The company has hired driverless car experts from Carnegie Mellon University for a special unit, and is now testing cars in Pittsburgh
Volvo is trialling self-driving technology in Sweden and plans to do so in London in 2018, before the technology becomes mainstream in the next decade. It has committed to nobody being killed or seriously injured in any Volvo sold from 2020
Apple is believed to have been secretly developing electric car technology for some time, and to have considered investments in several car companies. Recently, however, its plans appeared to have stalled and it is now working on developing software for other manufacturers
It’s as though the ghosts of automobiles past and present are about to meet the spectre of what’s to come. What will the Goodwood air smell of in the future?
‘Driverless cars alone have the potential to completely change the way we travel,’ says Future Lab’s curator, Lucy Johnston. ‘And they’re closer than we think.
‘In his most recent TED talk, Elon Musk (the entrepreneur who co-founded US carmaker Tesla) said that by the end of this year, an autonomous car will be able to leave a parking space in Los Angeles, navigate all the way across America, and park in a space in New York. If you promise that on the TED stage, you have to be pretty sure it’s going to happen.’
Indeed, driverless technology is a battleground for the world’s wealthiest companies, attracting eye-boggling investment from Silicon Valley and beyond.
Name a big company and they’ve probably got a foot on the pedal: Uber and Volvo arguably lead the field, with a pilot scheme already running in Pittsburgh; Google has completed over two million miles of testing on public roads; Intel just sunk £12.5 billion into an autonomous-car tech company; Amazon is said to be looking at harnessing the cars for deliveries; and that’s before we’ve even mentioned the traditional car manufacturers – the BMWs and Audis, who all want a slice of the pie.
So it’s interesting that rather than use one of these big names to represent the future of driverless cars in her exhibition, Johnston has chosen the Robocar – a madly futuristic, autonomous, electric car that was unveiled earlier this year by a British company of just 50 people.
Robocar looks like a remote-controlled supercar that’s lost its top half: there’s no windscreen, no steering wheel, and nowhere for a human to sit.
It can reach speeds of 200mph and is being tested on racetracks around the world – but spectators would be forgiven for struggling to identify Robocar as a car at all. And that, says Johnston, is part of the point. It forces spectators to appreciate the sheer capability of the technology.
‘When you first see Robocar, it spins you out a bit. You realise the future is now real. We read a lot about driverless cars by companies such as Google, but they still look like cars. There’s a seat for a driver to take control, so your brain doesn’t have trouble joining the dots. With Robocar, your brain really does freak out – in a good way!’
Johnston is confronting a problem that the driverless car industry knows only too well: that the computer technology for these vehicles is far ahead of our readiness to accept them into our lives. Elon Musk may be ready to send a car across America with no driver, but that doesn’t stop the idea sending a shiver down our collective spine.
Which is why stories about driverless crashes, like the one between a Google car and a human-driven bus last year, travel so fast around the internet. We want to see the devil in computer-controlled cars, rather than the detail.
‘Everyone went crazy when the Google car crashed into the bus, but the reality is that it was the first crash after millions of miles of testing,’ says Justin Cooke, chief marketing officer of Kinetik, the company behind Robocar. ‘If any human had driven that many miles, there would have been more accidents.’
To help bridge this trust gap, Kinetik will next year launch Roborace, a competition designed to showcase its car’s capabilities, with teams of programmers striving to devise the most effective software and then running Robocar in front of spectators.
In theory, Roborace will be to the driverless car what F1 is to the manual car: the supreme testing ground for technology that will ultimately trickle down to the consumer. Only in this instance, speed isn’t necessarily of the essence.
‘Roborace isn’t going to be your traditional race,’ explains Cooke. ‘Safety is top of the agenda for this technology, so we’re looking at setting tasks. Maybe the car has to reach 200kmh [125mph], then stop perfectly in a box.’
Other challenges being discussed include a game of chicken, where two Robocars speed towards a central line and have to stop as close to it as possible without hitting one another, and the introduction of robotic dogs on the racetrack – an idea borne from a testing session in February, when a real-life dog ran out on to the track and the Robocar swerved to avoid it.
Roborace promises entertainment, but that’s not to say its real-world application is anything less than extraordinarily serious. With the hardware (the driverless cars themselves) already able to navigate city spaces and improving daily, an algorithm that can safely and efficiently control an entire car network has become the holy grail of autonomous transport.
Find it, and the 97 per cent of accidents on our roads that are caused by human error disappear (Cooke says that, by comparison, a computer’s margin for error is ‘0.000something’).
So too do traffic lights – instead, the computer can sort the most efficient flow of cars at any junction. No more sitting at red lights; no more slowing down as other drivers rubberneck a crash.
The social implications are as startling. While some of us would regain the time we currently spend behind the wheel, others would lose their jobs. Estimates suggest there are around 400,000 HGV drivers in the UK alone; in the US, driving a vehicle is the most common job in 29 of the 50 states. All would face redundancy in the driverless epoch.
We can also expect the face of our towns and cities to change significantly. The average car currently spends 95 per cent of its time parked in a drive or by the side of the road; that gets flipped on its head in a connected, autonomous system, where your next ride can be summoned at the touch of a button (much like Uber now, so you can see why it is keen to invest).