First come first served
We’ve all been there…
In a hurry to get somewhere, wherever that somewhere might be. To catch a flight, a train, a romantic dinner date! If you’re in your own car, you know all the short cuts, the roads to avoid at certain times of the day, where to park and the bottlenecks. You’re in control. For people driving emergency vehicles, getting somewhere on time could literally mean the difference between life and death.
But with a driverless car, you won’t be in control, at least not if companies like Google get their way (there won’t even be a steering wheel). You’ll have to trust the technology: the LIDAR sensors “seeing” the road, the network connection, and the satellite systems tracking and guiding the car. If you’re late, it might not be your fault but will you also have the added frustration that if you’d been in control, you might have got there faster.
If using your car was the only option to get somewhere then you might have been better off driving yourself. On the other hand, if a car is just one part of your journey and if this journey is in a time and place where driverless vehicles (planes, trains and automobiles) are the most common form of transport, then no, you’re probably better off leaving it to the robots to get you there.
All’s fair in love and driverless war…
But that assumes there will be a level playing field. It assumes that all driverless vehicles – and supporting technologies, systems and infrastructure – will be able to communicate with each other.
There’s no guarantee of that unless governments insist everything is compatible. Otherwise we could end up with a situation where competing companies develop incompatible technologies. It’s happened before: Betamax couldn’t play VHS video tapes or vice versa. It could happen again. The result? Google’s connected car may not be able to chat to Tesla’s or any other manufacturer’s.
Cooperation is the name of the game
If we are to enjoy the much-hyped benefits of driverless technology – efficiency and safety – all the different technologies and systems will need to be able to talk to each other quickly, clearly and continually.
Ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles should also get priority over all other traffic – like they do in the human driving world. To do that, they’ll all need to be speaking the same language and give way to each other when necessary.
Achieving that means getting driverless cars to communicate with buses, lorries, trains, trams, taxis, caravans, cyclists and perhaps even pedestrians and their smartphones too – pretty much anything on the road or capable of moving on it or near it.
If all vehicles know where they are at any given moment, they can coordinate their movements. Traffic jams may disappear, so might accidents and we may never miss another train or flight again. Our journeys across town, the country and the world may be timed, like an orchestra, to perfection.
The future is just around the corner
Last month, popular transport routing app CityMapper launched a feature that combines Uber pickups and the public transport network. CityMapper will send an Uber car to pick you up at just the right time to catch the train you need several miles away.
Choose your destination, press a button, and follow the instructions to make your way across a city without having to think about it. As large systems like Uber and Transport for London link up, getting from A to B could get a whole lot easier for us all.
Well, maybe not all…
“If I’m a big executive and I need to get to my meeting across London in 15 minutes, can I pay a super-premium price that will change all the traffic lights and ensure I get freedom of my route?” asks Professor Nick Reed, Technical Lead of the GATEway project, testing driverless shuttles this year in Greenwich, London.
It’s a good question. Companies like Uber and Lyft want to make a profit, and one way of doing that is to offer a point to point service. But there are other ways of increasing their profits: offering in-car entertainment, so you can watch a movie while you’re on the move, and getting you from A to B in less time. Some people may be willing to pay a premium to get wherever they need to be in less time, but what does that mean for the rest of us?
If all driverless vehicles are communicating and coordinating the traffic around a given area, then for some to arrive sooner – because they’ve paid a premium – some will have to arrive later.
Who wants to be late?
That might be ok for customers in Uber taxis, but what about competing services? Black cabs and Lyft taxis won’t want to lose out to Uber, but they’ll all be using the same roads and potentially the same communication networks.
What’s to stop Google programming its taxis to huddle together and sandwich an Uber cab? Or to take up more of the bandwidth when Uber cars are in the vicinity? All may not be quite so fair in love and driverless war after all…