Currently reading: Opinion: Why autonomy won't kill off driving as we know it
Autonomous cars make sense on busy motorways, but our love of driving will prevent the end of it as we know

I was going to stay off this subject for a while. But a few weeks ago someone wanted me to talk about autonomous cars at a conference.

Actually, they wanted me to have an argument about them, so here I am.

“We want one person to be in favour of autonomy,” they said, “and one against it.”

My pleasure, I said. And, naturally, given that I’m basically a paid driver and scribbler on the world’s longest-established car magazine, everyone I spoke to in advance assumed I’d be against cars taking over.

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Not a bit of it, I said. Well, quite a few bits of me are concerned about it, obviously, but they wanted an argument and I was happy to give it, because, broadly speaking, I think self-driving cars will liberate us all.

I have a hope, you see. A vision.I have a hope that cars, lorries and buses that can drive themselves to some extent will give us quicker, less stressful and safer journeys. Which isn’t a bad place to start, is it?

Today, you get into a car at the start or end of a day at work and do nothing but sit. In fact, you’re expressly forbidden by law from doing anything else but sitting and operating controls. Which is fine, if you like doing that, but unless your commute starts in one rural area and ends in another, you won’t be having a great deal of fun in the meantime.

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But if your car could, once you got to a certain stretch of road, take over, well, then you could start doing something useful. After which the car would hand control back to you when you wanted it to, or when the controlled bit of road comes to an end, and you continue.

You’re still travelling, still driving, but you’ve done something useful in the meantime. It’s like public transport, only with the considerable advantage that it goes from where you are to where you want to go, when you want to go there.

So what could go wrong? Well, there are cyber criminals and terrorists hacking vehicles and crashing them, there’s potential unemployment, there’s your AI car watching you watch The Terminator and getting inspired to kill us all and there is the fact that an accident caused by a machine – no matter how much rarer than an accident where a person is responsible – is far less palatable than when people drive into each other. All valid concerns.

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And then there’s one that isn’t: that autonomous vehicles will end driving as we know it. Which it won’t, because I have confidence that lots of people actually quite like driving. There are car makers who will never make a self-driving car, and no one is about to ban them, unless they also ban walkers, cyclists, motorcyclists, farmers on quad bikes and a legion of other non-autonomous road users from all of our roads, which, of course, they never will.

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Like no one needs to fly their own aircraft, sail a dinghy, ride horses, go camping or light a log fire in the corner of their living room, no one will need to drive, but they will still choose to do it. End it as a chore and you liberate it as a hobby. In the meantime, we’ll sit, for hours, in a queue behind another vehicle, watching a set of tail-lights as our lives gently slide away. One day, people will look back on this and think we were mad.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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Harry P 11 November 2016

Utopia by 2050?

Whilst I can appreciate the many benefits of an autonomous vehicle on busy motorways and dual carriageways. I really cannot see them working safely on rural minor roads, where the road edges are often not clearly defined and there are many random hazards to deal with.
How do two autonomous vehicles meeting on a single track road decide where to safely pull over and off the road in order for one to pass? Or, will we all be so affluent and efficient by 2050 that all roads will be perfect hyperways?
MrJ 11 November 2016

It will take a while, but

It will take a while, but once motorways are automated, the rest of the road system will follow.

Machine-accidents are likely to be lower than human-related, so the insurance companies will reflect this in premiums.

And the less practise people have behind the wheel, the less road skills they will have - use it or lose it.

It's not going to happen overnight, but I'd guess that cars are under human control will be history by the mid-2050s.

wmb 11 November 2016


Ih'm in my mid forties and 2050 is almost 35 years away, so IMHO, that would suggest that most of those complaining today about self driving vehicles and preaching gloom and doom, may be TOO old to drive themselves or even care whose operating their vehicles by then. Serious, I do not think that this tech will hit the main stream and be available on a lot of vehicles until close to the 2030's and then it will be like "cruise control" on most vehicles today. By then laws governing its usage will be clearer and in place and most of the heavy lifting on the tech will be done. What the future will be like with this new tech remains to be seen. Back in the 1950's, folks were saying we'd be in flying cars by now. While there are some really fast ones, none have taken to the sky on purpose that weren't stunt vehicles.
xxxx 11 November 2016

Qu: Why autonomy won't kill off driving as we know it

ans: because it won't happen for the foreseeable future.