Connected cars are set to transform the driving experience in the UK in just a few years. Autonomous technology gradually replacing human drivers is likely to dramatically cut traffic congestion and serious accidents and could give people back valuable hours in their day.
Today half of all new cars sold have some element of connectivity within them, and I believe every new car will be connected by 2020. The head of Google’s self-drive car project, Chris Urmson, told a TED conference in March that he was aiming to deliver a fully-automated car before his 11-year-old son was old enough to drive so he would never have to take a test.
Premium vehicles already contain much of this technology. Cars like the BMW X5 and Volvo XC90 allow you to effectively hand over control to the vehicle in stop-start traffic on the motorway, although today's laws require the driver to remain attentive at all times.
Automatic parking – already a relatively common feature on luxury cars – is starting to filter down to cheaper models. Highway Pilot, a programme that looks after the driving and overtakes by itself on motorways, will launch in the next two years and by 2020, intersection assistance technology will allow vehicles to autonomously navigate junctions.
No jam tomorrow
Connected cars could end long traffic jams. A proportion of motorway congestion often occurs when one car slows down, causing other drivers to overcompensate and brake too hard, creating a ripple effect that eventually leads to a traffic jam miles behind them. I see vehicle-to-vehicle communications linked to automatic braking systems starting to alleviate this problem by 2020. In the next decade a centralised urban traffic management system could automatically divert cars away from congestion created by rush hour travel.
Incremental advances in technology are moving us steadily towards completely autonomous cars. Sensors and algorithms that respond to external stimuli from signs, other vehicles and the road itself will take the decision making away from the driver.
Without human error and using technology that responds far faster than our brains, road accidents should reduce dramatically. Insurance premiums may halve by 2020 but the government has a role to play here, incentivising the uptake of life-saving technology.
A new kind of owner
Autonomous cars will also enable the elderly and disabled to live more independent lives by removing the requirement for an able-bodied driver. Initially only the privileged few will be able to afford one of these vehicles, but traditional ownership models are also likely to change.
Shared ownership will open up a fresh wave of adoption. Driverless vehicles can shuttle people to and from locations autonomously, so are far better suited to sharing than cars that require a driver. I suspect we will see the arrival of electric shared-use vehicles in urban settings by around 2030. That will signal the death knell for the taxi industry … if Uber hasn’t got there first.
There are risks to this vision: remote hacking of connected cars; rare but unsettling crashes caused by defective code; and public resistance to technology to name but three. However, the safety and economic benefits felt by drivers will overcome these risks.
Moreover, it should be much easier to link up autonomous vehicles with other forms of public transport, which makes for more cost-effective mobility. With technology that processes information many times quicker than any human brain, I foresee a nation of perfectly driven cars by the middle of this century.