I didn’t know this: in England, the average driver spends 235 hours – six working weeks – behind the wheel every year.
The Department for Transport (DfT) told me this in a document called ‘The Pathway to Driverless Cars’, which says that driverless cars are coming and thatyou really ought to like it.
They will make access to cars easier (nearly half of under-30s can’t drive), reduce congestion and accidents and improve air quality.
For good measure, the DfT is trying to position the UK as the world’s best place to develop driverless cars. And why not? We have great researchers, changeable weather and challenging roads.
Crucially, the UK never ratified the Vienna Convention, which insists that “every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver” who “shall at all times be able to control his vehicle”. So while other countries revoke laws or issue special permits for driverless research, here engineers can just get on with it.
But what I like most about the DfT’s Pathway is that it treads softly. “The Government is developing a light-touch, non-regulatory approach to the testing and development of these technologies,” it says. The whole document reads like a virtuous, altruistic experiment.
Government wins if air quality and accident rates improve and manufacturers win if we buy their stuff. You and I? We win if people crash less, we use less fuel and commutes get easier, as long as driving for pleasure still exists. And there’s the worry.
And there’s why I’ve sighed at a Transport Committee of 11 MPs, who’ve read the Pathway and, in response, have made some recommendations, like telling the DfT to “prepare for a transitional period when manual, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles are all running together on UK roads”.
As if it’s doing anything else. Everyone developing autonomous technologies is already preparing for that, but it isn’t a ‘transitional period’; it’s simply ‘the future’ for all of our lifetimes and beyond.
Oh, here’s the committee again, reminding the DfT that “potential levers to nudge behaviour [towards adopting particular technologies] include type certification, road worthiness standards, mandating the fitting of particular technologies to new and existing vehicles by a specified date, scrappage schemes and fiscal incentives”.
Yes, that’s the Transport Committee already floating the idea of making mandatory technology that may not even exist yet, let alone work, and phasing out vehicles that don’t have it. Excuse me while I put my face in my hands and sob.