Driverless cars a 'big step forward' for smarter travel
Driverless cars a 'big step forward' for smarter travel

Driverless cars a ‘big step forward’ for smarter travel

A leading UK professor expects a battle to ensue for the future of travel…with driverless cars leading the way.

Professor John Miles, of the department of engineering at University of Cambridge, was speaking at the Internet of Things Forum in Cambridge yesterday, where he gave a detailed overview of the opportunity for driverless cars as we move to a future likely to be dominated by the shared economy.

In his presentation, entitled “The near future for connected transport…from self-driving cars to the Hyperloop”, the professor outlined opportunity for cars to do more than they are currently, saying that increasing the capacity and complexity of cars could lead to less traffic and smarter travel.

He said that there are currently 224,000 miles of UK road network, but only 10,000 miles of railway network, something he says shows that roads remain a “powerful, existing asset”.

“Maybe we’re too quick to rubbish the car…maybe we should observe what we’ve got here, and ask ourselves if we should be concentrating on making them even better.”

And despite many ‘demonizing’ the car over continually congested roads and high emissions, he said it is invariably cheaper than competitors like the rail and bus, both of which have faults when it comes to capacity, usage and cost.

For example, he researched the M1 with the corresponding railway lines, and found that the car would cost £30 million per mile in each direction on the M1. The railway would cost £50m per mile for the railway in the same area. Furthermore, cars and railways deliver roughly the same amount of people (9-10,000) in this area, while Miles says that rail upgrades can be expensive.

Miles instead pushes for more ‘headroom’ of strategic road network. He says while capacity is an issue (roads can’t be built quick enough), there is more to be done to reduce minor incidents, and increase lane occupancy.

He believes that current minor incidents (80 percent of which are apparently caused by driver inattention) account for around 30 percent of congestion on all roads. He adds that having cars travel closer together could ultimately lead to four lanes rather than three, representing a capacity increase of 33 percent.

“If we could increase ln occupancy, we could increase number of people moving down those roads, without any increase in [financial] output.”

“What we need to do is to fill the vehicles we have, not just have big empty vehicles driving around because they are deemed to be ‘good’. What we need is scalable bus…but if I was being cynical I’d say that this is the car.”

He believes in on-demand systems – perhaps part of the shared economy trail-blazed by Uber and Airbnb – and urges us to move away from ‘yesterday’s thinking’ of fixed travel for a fixed group at a fixed moment in time.

The future, he says, is all about spontaneous on-demanding booking service, cloud-based booking and billing, and yet vehicles which still maintain a comfortable and reliable journey that is guaranteed to arrive within a set time-frame.

He says driverless cars are the driver for this and uses his previous example of the M1 to show that the car-based model should in future be able to deliver “six or seven times the amount we can do on the train.”

“This is why we should be interested in self-driving vehicles; it’s a very big step forward.”

Also read: UK to spend £20 million researching the driverless car

Could Tesla’s Hyperloop derail the driverless car?
Could Tesla’s Hyperloop derail the driverless car?

Driverless cars improve road capacity

This capacity matching is already being pushed by the UK government and a number of academics. For example, he describes L-SATS as perhaps the closest thing to ‘last mile’ automated devices, with these currently being tested in Milton Keynes and Cambridge too.

There are other examples of driverless cars and other automated vehicles; the Bullet is an electric driverless 120mph vehicle where vehicles couple together (not wholly dissimilar to those imagined in Tom Cruise’s Total Recall), while the Mercedes F015 Luxury in Motion concept car was seen by IoB at MWC.

“This is about all convenience and facility for the user, and its provided by the self-driving car. It’s a whole new dimension to travel, a dimension where we don’t mind being stuck in traffic because we’ve got better things to do. And most of the time we’re not stuck in traffic because the roads are optimised.”

Yet he later suggested, after a question from the audience, that self-driving cars will also always have manual modes for the person to take-over.

“You don’t need to force anybody to do anything; if you want to drive your car you will be able to.”

Yet, he tempered his praise for driverless cars but suggesting that it could well face a battle against Elon Musk (and Tesla’s) next great invention – the Hyperloop, a 700mph subsonic train that is aiming to take passengers from London to Birmingham in 12 minutes.

The Hyperloop is in essence a futuristic train that Musk calls “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table”. It’s based on the very high speed transit (VHST) system proposed in 1972 which combines a magnetic levitation train and a low pressure transit tube. Musk has likened it to a vacuum tube system in a building used to move documents from place to place.

Musk has previously said that all Tesla cars will be autonomous by 2018.

“Hyperloop is a fantastic idea; we’ve done some work on it,” added Miles.

Also read: Father of IoT predicts rapid advances in the driverless car