The Road Ahead

By Rupert Blackwell, August 2017

We’ve recently completed a qualitative project looking at the impact autonomous cars could have on motoring – what do people think driving in the UK is going to be like in the future when self-driving cars roll into town? What surprised most people we spoke to is how soon fully autonomous vehicles will be here. We’re already used to cars that park themselves, of course, but the idea that self-driving cars will be on the roads in less than 10 years came as a bit of a shock. Most people can imagine car technology developing at this speed, but it’s the other things that’ll need to happen – changing the legislation, adapting our road infrastructure – which will surely take longer. One of the most interesting parts of the project came when we interviewed early adopters while they drove around. We got them to demonstrate and talk about some of the smart ‘driver assist’ technology they already have on their cars; most of it works pretty well, but none of it’s perfect, which is a bit of a worry if everything’s soon to go fully autonomous. More revealing was when we asked our respondents to use the present day driving experience as a means of imagining the future – what will driving down this road in 10 years’ time be like if the cars we see now are fully autonomous? Although people think self-driving cars will essentially be able to sense other vehicles and navigate successfully, it’s the human stuff they’re not sure about. Will autonomous cars have true road sense and be able to read other drivers and pedestrians, anticipate their behaviour and respond to human gestures and eye contact? Aren’t these the kind of things that are fundamental to safe driving but which need instinct and experience to develop? It’s not just safety that consumers worry about when it comes to the future of motoring. Many drivers love the process and mechanics of driving and are reluctant to hand this over entirely to their cars. And from what we observed in our in-car interviews, part of the enjoyment seems to be engaging with the world around us, including other drivers. Yes, we all went to drive along traffic-free open roads, but we also seem to like the challenge of negotiating traffic and responding to the humans in the vehicles we encounter. It’s another form of communication, expression and interaction – if we let our cars take over everything, we might miss this aspect of driving more than we expect.