Autonomous buses in Edinburgh? The future of the transport industry

Your days of thanking a human driver when getting off a city bus may be coming to an end. This week The Guardian reported that the UK’s driverless vehicle initiative will result in autonomous buses in Edinburgh as early as next year. The trial of driverless vehicles will be launched in Edinburgh and London, with a fleet of five driverless buses servicing an Edinburgh to Fife route, and driverless taxis cruising around in London. The Edinburgh to Fife driverless bus program will begin as a pilot next year, with emergency drivers on board, ready to take over in case of emergencies. The program hopes to have the service fully operational and fully autonomous by 2021.

The public perception of driverless vehicles is complicated. Strong cases can be made for and against the dehumanisation of public transit; however, the argument may be a classic case of pitching data-driven facts against emotional rhetoric.

The case against autonomous vehicles.

If you called a taxi today, and a car rolled up with no one in it and popped open a door on its own, you would most likely be a little uneasy getting in the car. Most people feel this way. In fact, Reuters has reported that up to 73 per cent of people feel uncomfortable with the idea of self-driving cars. The threat of mechanical glitch and lack of control looms large in the minds of most people. It is unsettling to think that if another driver swerves into our lane, we will be unable to recognise the situation and react accordingly. Leaving that responsibility up to an algorithm comes across as particularly problematic. This nightmare scenario was realised in March of 2017 when the first fatal crash occurred with an autonomous vehicle.

Furthermore, there are environmental concerns with autonomous vehicles as well. It is predicted that autonomous vehicles will result in cheaper and more accessible vehicular transportation options, which will cause more people to utilise these services. This increase could absolutely result in more vehicles on the road, more traffic, and a dramatic increase in carbon emissions. The Weather Network reports that the only way to prevent this increase in greenhouse gas emissions would be to ensure that the autonomous vehicles popping up around the world be 100 per cent electric powered.

The case for autonomous vehicles.

As it turns out, humans are not great drivers. The World Health Organisation reports that roughly 1.25 million people die annually from car crashes. This means one automobile-related death occurs roughly every 25 seconds. Humans evolved walking around slowly on two feet for millions of years, and about 100 years ago we began sitting in metal boxes that hurtle down the road at higher speeds than we have ever experienced before. Perhaps it is not so shocking that millions of people are being killed as a result of this decision.

According to the Associated Press, driverless cars can reduce automobile accidents by up to 90 per cent. Maybe autonomous vehicles fail to offer the control that a human-driving vehicle would, but an autonomous vehicle cannot fall asleep at the wheel, be distracted by a text message from an ex-girlfriend or their favourite song coming on the radio. An autonomous vehicle cannot steer with its knee while eating a plate of spaghetti with both hands. Maybe we should be trusting algorithms more than we should be trusting people. As technology improves, mechanical error will continue to decrease, whereas human error is a relatively stable constant.

In response to environmental concerns, autonomous vehicles would result in a cheaper and more reliable bus system and ride-sharing or taxi system, which the Futures Center estimates could reduce cars in urban areas by up to 80 per cent, a very different story than we see being told by those who question the sustainability of autonomous vehicles.

As we see with most predictive data, it is difficult to determine which story the future will tell. Numbers can be manipulated to support either side, and there is something to be said for the fact that almost three quarters of people surveyed are uncomfortable with autonomous vehicles. However, the potential upside seems to be too great to ignore. So next year, when the fleet of self-driving Edinburgh to Fife buses is launched as a pilot, we should support the experiment with an open mind. And we should find the 27 per cent of the population that is comfortable with self-driving vehicles and have them test the buses out – because I do not want to be the one to have to do it.


Image: kim traynor via geograph 

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