Autonomous road vehicles: can we maximise the benefits?

Graham Parkhurst looks at the challenges we need to overcome if we are to realise the full potential of autonomous vehicles.

To benefit from autonomous vehicles, we will need to meet a number of conditions.
To benefit from autonomous vehicles, we will need to meet a number of conditions.

Government departments, technology developers and industrial strategy advisors across the globe have identified numerous potential benefits from the introduction of autonomous road vehicles (ARVs). These include “vision zero” levels of road safety by eliminating human driver error, greater social inclusion in the case that people without driving licences or driving skills can gain access to cars, and reduced congestion and emissions if vehicle progress is smoother due to the motion being managed with respect to the road conditions and coordinated with other vehicle movements.

Benefits for society

What is generally not recognised in arguments promoting the benefits of ARVs, though, is that a number of conditions will need to apply before those benefits are realised in full. First, some of the benefits, such as safety, will arise in proportion to the share of ARVs in the circulating vehicle fleet. Other benefits, such as the smoothing of traffic flow, might need certain thresholds of fleet share to be achieved. They will also be dependent on unintended or rebound effects not occurring, whereby demand for road travel sharply increases because ARVs make getting around by private vehicle more attractive.

Second, some of the benefits, such as social inclusion, will only arise with particular thresholds of technological development being achieved, for example, “level five” full automation will be required before citizens unable to drive can travel without a qualified driver in an ARV. While there is not a consensus on when level five can be achieved, even if it began today it would likely take many more years before full automated vehicles are widely available.

Third, the level of coordination of vehicle movements necessary to deliver ¬smoothed traffic flow will require the interconnectivity of vehicles and infrastructure and wide scale sharing of data. Such systems will require infrastructure investment and a public consensus about ARV data sharing.

Taken together, the visions of significant social benefits from ARVs assume:

  • A high degree of take-up of ARVs, that those road users with suitably equipped vehicles engage autonomy features for all or most of their travel
  • That either public or private actors emerge that are willing to invest in the infrastructure for “connected autonomous vehicles”
  • That data security and privacy concerns will be overcome
  • And yes, that technological d¬evelopment does achieve full “everything, anywhere” autonomy in a way that is commercialisable to a wide range of consumers

It cannot be denied that a highly positive outcome from ARV adoption is possible, but the level of associated socio-political change necessary to achieve that outcome should not be underestimated. Much depends upon the 20 plus year transition from low levels of automation in the road fleet to widespread levels of high automation being managed in such a way that ARVs promote sustainable mobility as well as safer, easier mobility.

About the author

Professor Graham Parkhurst is leading the social and behavioural work package of the Innovate UK-funded Venturer autonomous vehicles project.