Why a driverless future will not arrive until 2025

Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder and Transport for London board member Michael Liebreich has told why he believes a world of autonomous cars is currently a distant reality that must overcome urban challenges.

Michael Liebreich
Michael Liebreich

Liebreich gave his take on why significant regulatory hurdles mean the technology will take a decade to be ubiquitous, despite it being well developed.

He also said that a direct driverless route between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is the emirate’s best chance of quick success in the field.

He believes that the concept of “feral taxis” – taxis that are totally autonomous and able to deal with a huge number of unpredictable outcomes – is a long way off due to factors that are out of technology’s hands.

“The technology that is needed to deal with unintended consequences doesn’t exist yet,” he said. “I’m in the camp that’s optimistic about self-driving vehicles, but I’m cautious about a fully driverless platform that can deal with everything.

“If you go to Madison Square Garden in New York or the O2 in London, am I supposed to believe that in two years people will show up in self-driving cars to see Adelle? There needs to be management of that traffic flow, not every car can have a pin drop for the location; there will be gridlock.

“On the technology side, everyone assumes cars will self-manage, but they won’t in road conditions they may not have experienced, and in interactions with non-autonomous drivers who may behave unpredictably.

“I don’t want to give impression that these issues can’t be solved, but you can’t release the technology into wild and hope it doesn’t matter that you will have thousands of drop-offs and that streets can cope. Some pieces of the puzzle don’t move at the same speed as a programmer in California pulling an all-nighter.”

Liebreich added that, to an extent, the safety benefits of a driverless ecosystem are largely over-exaggerated. “People say driverless cars will save lives, but if we already have the technology that stops a car from turning in a way that is dangerous, why not put it into cars now? Why wait for fully driverless technology? We will see modular integration into high-end cars before the full feral taxi is launched.”

He also said that in the Middle East, a direct route through the desert may be the UAE’s best hope of introducing change in the field. “You could you see a driverless shuttle service between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, for example, before 2020,” he said. “The technology is there to do it, from terminal to terminal. It may not have a driver, but would need a captain.”

For the full-length interview with Michael, read the February issue of CNME.

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