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Self-driving cars – coming soon to UK streets?

Self-driving cars – coming soon to UK streets?

By Toby Shannon, Science in Society Officer at the British Science Association

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I can remember being about seven years old and sitting down to draw a picture (or, probably, in my mind “designing an invention”) – I thought about a dangerous task and a machine that would help us to complete this task safely. And so of course I thought about an automated car to help transport tigers from place to place. My tiger transporter had all the road maps of the country loaded into its computer and a camera to help it see where to go to deliver its cargo to its destination. Pretty cool, no?

Whilst my childhood dream of door-to-door automated tiger delivery may not come true, driverless vehicles may be mere months away from appearing on a street near you. At the end of July 2014, Business Secretary Vince Cable invited cities around the UK to apply for a £10m scheme for three cities to host UK trials of autonomous vehicles – the deadline for expressions of interest is October which could mean that trials could start in 2015. Alongside this, road regulations will be reviewed to include driverless cars – both those which can be controlled by a driver if necessary and fully-automated cars.

Throughout 2014, Google has been releasing videos from its Self-Driving Car Project channel exploring the technology and the philosophy behind making it a reality. Their flagship video, ‘A First Drive’, has been seen by over seven million people and shows the prototype of the Google car and a diverse range of passengers experiencing it for the first time. The car itself is certainly eye-catching (and looks curiously like a road-going koala bear) and technically hugely impressive but it’s the passengers that steal the show – all are completely in awe of this new technology and instantly see the potential for revolutionising how they get from place to place. Steve, a blind participant, presents a perspective that is particularly moving as the technology could give him a new degree of freedom and independence. Janet and Ethan, a mother and her son, see the potential for it changing their family life as she can spend more time interacting directly with her children if she isn’t driving them around everywhere. All of the interviewees comment on how smooth and natural the experience is.

But, outside of a promotional video, what do people think about this? The idea of being chauffeured from place to place by invisible, robotic means certainly appeals but are there any possible downsides? How will the cars interact with non-autonomous traffic? What happens to people who make their living from driving? How will the technology deal with the patchy (or non-existent) wi-fi, 4G and sat-nav access that we all-too-often get in the UK?

Sciencewise, the UK’s centre for dialogue in science and technology, is planning a new piece of research to capture examples of public attitudes to this emerging area of technology and will be examining sources such as surveys, consultations, comments on news stories, public engagement initiatives and views expressed on social media. Similar pieces of research in this series include regenerative medicine, quantum technology and big data.

We want to ask the right questions and look at the best sources of information. If you are involved in automated transport in some capacity (for example research in academia or industry, or policy making in this area) we want to hear from you! Please do get in touch with us here or leave a comment below. 

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