Let’s be courageous, part 18

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 17, posted on 4 Nov 2016).

In its written evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC) the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) – surely the horse’s mouth when it comes to predicting the future for autonomous vehicles – expressed the view that it was “too early to determine the impact of autonomous and connected vehicles on the road network or on wider transport” (see footnote 1).

However, the SMMT is able to paint a very positive picture of the development of these technologies, commenting that “although targets such as 2020 to 2030 are provided regarding the mainstream introduction of autonomous vehicles autonomous features are already a readily available aspect of many new vehicles on the UK’s roads today” and that “the move to greater autonomy is already happening” (see footnote 2). For example, an essential base technology for full autonomy is “connected vehicles” – the ability of vehicles to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles – and the SMMT is able to report that “80% of all autos sold in 2016 will be connected” (see footnote 3). The organisation also declares that the UK “is already in a positive position in relation to the trailing of autonomous vehicles and the regulatory framework to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads” (see footnote 4).

According to The Guardian newspaper, progress towards the mainstream use of driverless cars “moved up a gear” with the announcement recently that the Ford Motor Company “would produce a fleet of driverless cars for ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, by 2021” (see footnote 5). The newspaper quotes Ford’s President and Chief Executive, Mark Fields, as claiming that the next decade would be “defined by automation of the automobile” and predicting that “the switch to driverless travel would affect society as much as the introduction of the assembly line, allowing mass-produced cars, did a century ago”.

In his briefing paper Rich man’s toy: The case for scrapping HS2 Taxpayer’s Alliance Policy Analyst, Harry Fairhead, reports a benefit of driverless cars that is likely to make transport planners particularly happy: as the adoption of this technology takes over, so the capacity potential of our existing road system will grow. He cites an analysis prepared in the United States, which identifies the follow reasons why (see footnote 6):

  • Eliminating crashes resulting from human error will reduce non-recurrent congestion – 25 per cent of traffic congestion can be attributed to traffic incidents such as road traffic accidents and breakdowns
  • Autonomous vehicle technology allows closer vehicle spacing due to the ability to share information between vehicles and the much faster reaction times and smoother braking of the automatic systems
  • Vehicle “platooning” into electronically-linked convoys can also significantly reduce the required vehicle spacing
  • Autonomous vehicle technology allows the more efficient operation of highway intersections, significantly reducing intersection delay
  • Remote tracking of vehicles would permit potential congestion problems to be detected early and addressed in a timely manner

Mr Fairhead quotes the US analysts as claiming that typical motorways – actually the paper says “typical highway”, which may not necessarily be the equivalent of a motorway which would I assume have been referred to as a freeway by the Americans – “comprised of only human-driven vehicles have a maximum flow of around 2,200 per hour per lane”. The US paper says that “this reflects only 5 percent utilisation of the roadway space” (see footnote 6) and cites research by the researchers at Columbia University New York that indicates that even partial autonomy, comprising automatic braking, sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, can dramatically increase the potential to make better utilisation of this space. The Columbia University paper claims that, even with only 50 per cent of vehicles equipped in this way, there is a potential increase of highway capacity of 80 per cent (see footnote 7).

So, it would appear that we are on the brink of a major revolution in car usage that will make much better use of our roads and offer a much-enhanced travel experience for those who currently drive. It can only be described as surprising then that “several witnesses” who appeared in front of the EAC were able to claim that “the effect that the development of driverless cars would have on rail demand had not been considered by the Government” (see footnote 8).

During an oral evidence session EAC Member, the Lord Skidelsky, asked a simple question: “have you taken into account the increase in capacity of other forms of transport?” and made specific reference, inter alia, to “the development of the automated car”. The responses that he was treated to from the then Transport Secretary, the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, and Department for Transport mandarin, David Prout, occupy twenty-five lines of the transcript that could, I think, have been replaced by the simple two-letter word “no” (see footnote 9).

So we had Mr McLoughlin, who studied I think at the John Prescott School of Public Speaking, telling the Noble Lord that “what we have factored in is what we have seen happen … but exactly what the transport picture will be in 25 years’ time is anyone’s guess” (see footnote 10). For his part, Mr Prout was slightly more forthcoming, confirming that there was not a specific line in the economic case that identified a “reduction in rail demand resulting from improved road technology” but, nevertheless, that the predicted future demand for rail travel was “a conservative estimate”.

I genuinely despair that those who are responsible for deciding to spend such an enormous chunk of public money on HS2 can be so cavalier about the impact that such an important development as autonomous vehicles might have on the economic viability of the project.

(To be continued …)


  1. See paragraph 3 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT)—Written evidence, on page 867 in Oral and Written Evidence, Select Committee on Economic Affairs, The Economic Case for HS2.
  2. See paragraphs 7 and 11 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) —Written evidence on pages 868 to 870 in the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  3. See paragraph 12 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) —Written evidence on page 870 in the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  4. See paragraph 20 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) —Written evidence on page 871 in the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  5. See the article Ford to build ‘high volume’ of driverless cars for ride-sharing services, The Guardian, 16 August 2016.
  6. See the section Implication to Traffic Operations and Highway Capacity in the paper Highway Capacity Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles: An Assessment, Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, November 2013.
  7. For details of this citation refer to footnote 12 on page 4 of Highway Capacity Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles: An Assessment.
  8. See paragraph 105 in the report The Economics of High Speed 2, House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, 1stReport of Session 2014-15, March 2015.
  9. See under Q222 in Evidence Session 19, Tuesday 9thDecember 2014 on page 259 in Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  10. The EAC appeared to be so impressed with this particular example of political doublespeak that they quoted it in The Economics of High Speed 2, in paragraph 108.





2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by LesF on November 8, 2016 at 10:28 am

    I agree that we have no idea how much impact autonomous vehicles will have. On the one hand, those who can afford it will prefer to travel from their home direct to their destination in their own autonomous car while working instead of driving to the rail station, parking and waiting for a train. On the other hand, increasing the capacity of the roads by platooning will mean more cars wanting to park. Our towns and cities are already choked with parked cars. Would it be sensible to restrict autonomous vehicles to be hired for the specific journey so they can carry on to the next user rather than having to be parked? I see the same process as when car ownership grew post-war – good for the few who could afford them, but the upgrade of the road system never kept pace with the growth of traffic, and now we know we can’t build our way out of traffic congestion. That process will happen again without legislation to stop it.
    Even with their own autonomous cars, many commuters would still find it quicker to go by train into town in the peak period. Research is needed to get some idea of the impact of autonomous vehicles.
    Freight is another factor. Rail freight slumped by 20% last year due to the demise of coal power stations. The rise in container traffic may never fill the gap. The ability of road trains (rows of lorries running close together under a single control) will further damage rail freight, though I wouldn’t want to try leaving a motorway with a row of close-coupled lorries blocking the exit.
    All this uncertainty about the future suggests that HS2, already subject to vast cost increases, the loss of essential elements such as the connection to the Channel Tunnel and to Heathrow, and doubts about the optimistic predictions of passenger numbers, should not be built.


    • I agree with everything you say Les. The general consensus amongst the predictions of how the technology would be used is that the vehicle would move on to the next hiring once the passenger had been deposited at his/her destination, and so the need for parking in city centres would be avoided in general. On the down side, this means that there will be additional journeys between hirings when there would be no passenger on board, and this would reduce the bonus from road capacity gains.
      On the question of affordability, I think that the entry of Ford into the picture indicates an intention to aim for mass market appeal.
      It is, as we both agree, far from a clear picture, but that doesn’t mean that the DfT is justified in apparently totally ignoring the impact that this technology could have on the HS2 economic case. In my view, this ostrich act is a total dereliction of the DfT’s duty to establish that taxpayer funds are being spent wisely.


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