Dark comedy and driverless cars…

What do you do if you if you’re just a neutral onlooker in another country and want some light relief from the dark comedy of the USA’s Presidential Election? Explore the current world of driverless cars!  At least that’s what the Badger did when the unrelenting media and social media coverage just emphasised the sadness of seeing a superpower having a nervous breakdown over two old men while struggling to come to terms with the threat to it’s world dominance from the powerhouse that’s modern day China.   As Richard Holway put it in a recent TechMarketView post, if these two men are the best candidates to lead the Western world then there is something seriously wrong!  

The dark comedy is not over yet and there will inevitably be a Netflix film in due course, so the Badger’s attention was easily redirected into the realm of driverless vehicles where technology evangelists have been promising for years that completely driverless cars will take over the roads. You’ll find a neat summary of the different levels of autonomous vehicle here. It’s Level 5 vehicles that are fully autonomous and can go anywhere with the presence of a driver completely optional and various companies and organisations are progressing vehicular technology along the path towards this holy grail. Progress is slowly being made and each year more automated assistance aids are finding their way into new vehicles, but that doesn’t mean Level 5 vehicles will be in widespread general use by us, the general public, on our roads in the foreseeable future.  

Why not? Because a) they aren’t in widespread military use yet, b) as this AutoExpress item points out, drivers haven’t been asked if they actually want completely autonomous cars, c) idealists are having to become more realistic, and d) legislation, liability apportionment, and insuring autonomous cars are still work in progress. It’s pretty safe to think that we’ll be driving vehicles ourselves for some decades yet.  The technology will continue to advance but history shows it’s the transition and transformation from a long established way of doing something to something new and different that presents the greatest challenge. People don’t change behaviour quickly, especially if they feel something is being imposed. So far there’s little information available on how driverless vehicles will be introduced for us to use in a way that preserves our freedoms, builds trust, and changes attitudes and behaviours. That’s why the Badger agrees with the AutoExpress item’s conclusion that the driverless car is a vehicle that 99% of us would happily live without!

The rollout of Level 5 driverless vehicles to the public is decades away and it’s likely to be another dark comedy if the Smart Meter and Smart Motorway programmes are anything to go by. Oh dear.  The phrase ‘dark comedy’ is emerging as a common theme in the modern world. Let’s hope things don’t morph from this into ‘horror’…

‘Smart’ motorways help to decide on a car purchase!

The Badger’s made a decision about whether to replace his car. Three seemingly unrelated events ultimately underpinned the decision. The first was reading ‘Road Traffic Estimates: Great Britain 2017’ published by the UK Department of Transport in 2018. The second was a knock on the door by a man with a large white van. He was delivering a package ordered online 18 hours earlier. The third was being captive in horrendous motorway traffic on the way to and from an exhibition. Progress on the ‘Smart’ motorway was stop-start, maddening, and the lane speeds indicated on the gantries were laughable. It certainly didn’t feel like ‘Smart’ had made any difference to the journey experience whatsoever!

These three events influenced the Badger’s thinking along the following lines. Roads are more and more congested, so there’s little real benefit sitting in a traffic queue in a newer car, and although more UK motorways are being converted to ‘Smart’ – see short articles on the types of ‘Smart’ here and here – there are growing safety concerns as illustrated here, here, and here, for example. In the last 70 years traffic on UK roads has grown ~10-fold and vehicle ownership has grown ~6-fold, driven largely by economic growth and population growth. The upward trend is likely to continue and so there’s little reason to think congestion will ever reduce, even with the deployment of ever more sophisticated technology which, after all, has a habit of producing a peak of inflated expectation followed by a trough of disillusionment. Technology is not a panacea, and the nirvana of a driverless car society seems a long way off.

The environment featured in the Badger’s thinking, but a simple analysis quickly showed that the whole-life carbon footprint of a vehicle owned by the Badger – current or future – is tiny compared to that of one van in the growing army of vans that deliver our internet purchases to our homes. Since 1997 there’s been a 75% increase in the number of vans on the road, and a 67% increase in the miles they travel, with internet shopping and home delivery underpinning much of this rise. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future, and so the environmental incentive for the Badger to replace his personal vehicle is not high.

Replace or not to replace. You’ve surely guessed the decision by now. It’s the latter. The ‘business case’ for changing the vehicle doesn’t stack up! It’s just cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and healthier to keep the current car and change behaviour to reduce its usage. That doesn’t mean taking a backward step in personal independence or convenience, it just means being disciplined, thinking ahead with a moral compass, and taking different decisions on a day by day basis. Like many things in life, just simply adjusting our core behaviour costs little but can lead to a wide spectrum of benefits…

‘People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’…Probably not!

The world is awash with visions, forecasts and opinions about technology’s impact on society and our daily life in the coming decades. Journalists, academics, economist’s, politicians, company marketeers and independent commentators have all set out a future dominated by artificial intelligence, robots, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, and so on, but in reality, it’s people like you and me that will determine what becomes real.

Humans first developed tools to help adapt to changing circumstances in the Stone Age, and we’ve been doing that ever since. The Badger’s sure of two things – that we’ll continue to use technological advances to provide useful tools, and that we’ll avoid the societal subservience to technology as set out by Aldous Huxley’s ‘People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’. Today we are more educated than ever, familiar with tech’s good and bad points, questioning of tech giant motives, and more careful with our personal information. We have already experienced technology’s pros and cons and so we’re unlikely to accept being oppressed or enslaved by it in the future. At least that’s the Badger’s view!

TechMarketView’s recent ‘Down with the kids’ item had the Badger nodding vigorously in agreement. Two points really resonated. Firstly, today’s digital native teenagers still see the control, freedom, and independence offered by really driving a car as a rite of passage. Secondly, its question ‘It’s humans that are driving the invention and application of tech across industries, and its humans that will experience the consequences, good or bad, but will any of us humans be allowed to decide whether we want it or not?’ goes to the heart of what the future will look like for us all. To answer ‘No’ is a slippery slope to the Huxley view mentioned above. It would also mean his statement – ‘Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards’ – has truth and that the dystopia of Brave New World – published 87 years ago – is what we have to look forward to.

The Badger – ever the optimist and chuckling at, and relating to, a piece on whether an AI android could live forever – thinks a Brave New World dystopia will never happen. We’ll always adapt to new technology, just like we’ve done since the Stone Age, but humans are a savvy, unique and dangerous species which makes it improbable that we’ll ever allow technology to usurp our control. Why? Because a species like us that invents an axe to cut down trees to provide shelter and then also sees its usefulness as a weapon against others is never going to allow itself to get into a position of any kind of subservience. So, there you have it. The Badger’s added to the great wash of opinion about the future!

Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses? One day, but perhaps not soon…

The Badger’s considered changing his trusty but aging car for something more current and greener. There’s plenty of choice in the market so it should be easy coming to a decision, shouldn’t it? Err, No.

Why not? Because if you want to spend your money wisely then you have to recognise that entropy in the transportation world is rising dramatically! Entropy, by the way, is a measure of disorder and it always increases with time (as per the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics). The Badger has certainly observed the world become increasingly disordered over his lifetime and this isn’t going to change in the future.

Disruption and disorder in the transport world are easy to see. For example, UK government policy is to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. Electric vehicles (EVs) are deemed to be the future, even though their climate credentials aren’t quite as positive as you might think. Car manufactures are pushing ahead with EVs swiftly, but with a current market share of ~3% across Europe there’s much to do to overcome their limitations and convince the public. In addition, of course, technology marches forward and – if you believe it – self-driving cars will be common on UK roads from 2025 and might improve traffic flow by 35%. Hmm. These are all things to think about if you’re thinking of buying a car today and want to spend your money wisely.

The Badger cogitated and has concluded that the timelines for establishing EVs and self-driving vehicles for the masses on UK roads are very optimistic. Why? Firstly, progress on addressing EV range limitations, charging infrastructure, and take-up by the public is still slow (but improving). Secondly, there’s about 1 billion lines of software in a self-driving car which means there’ll be many bugs when operating and ‘integrating’ with other conventional and autonomous vehicles at scale in the real-world. Thirdly, while the UK government is to report on the autonomous vehicle regulatory framework in 2021, legislation moves slowly and political objectives are rarely met on time, especially at a time of political disorder. And finally, the ‘Introduction to Service’ phase of any programme that changes personal and societal behaviour always encounters difficulties and delay. It took decades for motor vehicles to replace horse and carts, and it will be a similar story for EVs and self-driving vehicles overtaking today’s conventional vehicles. It seems naïve to think otherwise.

So, what did the Badger decide about changing his car? Not to! Because if you do the analysis, currently that’s actually the cheapest, greenest and most future proof option as entropy rises further. Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses will happen one day, but perhaps not as soon as the hype suggests…

Driverless cars; now there’s a transformation challenge!

Richard Holway, a respected UK Tech analyst, wondered recently (TechMarketView, 27th April) if driverless cars for the masses would ever become a reality on UK streets. The Badger wondered the same thing, but from the perspective of an experienced programme deliverer rather than a market analyst.

A short guide to driverless cars from the RAC gives a simple insight to the many relevant issues and questions. It’s things like the legal framework, insurance and liability, safety accreditation, ethics and public acceptance, rather than the technology, that need clear resolution for driverless cars to become a reality on UK streets within the aggressive timescales often quoted by advocates.

Advanced trials on UK roads will start by the end of 2019 in order to meet a government commitment to have self-driving cars on UK roads by 2021. The Badger takes this with a pinch of salt. Why? Because the devil is in the detail and such trials will inevitably expose a plethora of unexpected issues. Excuse the Badger’s cynicism but the politicians also have a track record of finding a way to declare success by redefining what they meant in the first place! It doesn’t seem likely that fully driverless cars will be used by the masses as personal transport for many, many years yet. Experiencing the UK’s Bank Holiday traffic this weekend just emphasised the scale of the societal transformation necessary.

The Badger asked younger family members for their views. They were positive about the technology but had reservations about its robustness, security and safety in real-world circumstances. However, they were dubious that the public would adopt driverless transport with open arms. The youngsters had worries about loss of privacy, a ‘Big Brother’ world, liability for accidents and injury, and the potential for carnage when driverless vehicles mix with conventional traffic at scale. They thought driverless cars were overhyped, but that more tech-centred driver aids were a good thing. No one saw themselves using a driverless car on a public road out of choice for the foreseeable future.

The Badger can’t see the timelines for driverless cars in the UK being met. Why? Because it took years for Debit Cards to be widely used across society and a couple of decades for mobile phones to become an affordable part of every person’s life, so why would driverless cars be different? The transformational challenge is much greater. The societal aspects seem to get less airtime than the technology, so don’t hold your breath that fully driverless cars will happen fast in the UK. Perhaps the Badger’s wrong? Time will tell. In the meantime, the Badger’s side-stepping the driverless revolution by moving from cars to motorbikes for personal transport!