Are driverless cars set to remain science fiction?

Are driverless cars set to remain science fiction?

Read KPMG's latest report on the Future of the Car and the timeframe between possibility and reality.

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Are driverless cars set to remain science fiction?
  • Safety improvements are welcome, but not at the expense of the driving experience
  • History shows us that new developments take decades to filter through the market
  • Legislative and regulatory change move far slower than innovation

Driverless cars are set to remain science fiction, at least for the immediate future. The trail left by failed tech start-ups shows us that what may be technically possible is not the same as what is demanded by consumers. My experience as a former police driver and an advanced driving trainer leads me to believe the proponents of driverless vehicles ignore what drivers really want. Computer-designed junctions, airbags and ABS installation in vehicles led to road deaths halving between 2000 and 2013 to 1,713 fatalities. Greater connectivity can continue this trend. For example, telemetry helps enforce the rules of the road. Cars could be limited to the speed limit and transgressions could be logged, triggering automatic fines. Police drivers would welcome the ability to control other vehicles.

Connectivity in the name of safety is uncontroversial. But the idea of handing over control entirely to a computer is alarming, particularly for older people. Younger drivers may embrace the technology but the rest of us will need convincing of the safety of autonomous systems. Particularly when we read daily stories of computer glitches, data loss and cyber-crime.

Leaving aside the safety concerns, autonomous cars would not be much fun to drive. Millions of people love motoring. The popularity of Formula 1, Nascar and World Rally all reflect this. Top Gear remains one of the BBC’s most popular programmes in the UK and around the world (despite Clarkson’s fall from grace). Even during their grinding commute, I question whether most drivers would want to give it up.

Admittedly, I can see an argument for autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas. Inching down cramped city roads can be joyless but this is not the reality of driving for much of the UK.

Connectivity in cars will continue to develop, but I question the timeframe of adoption suggested by some enthusiasts. Even the most straightforward technology will take decades to filter through the market. ABS, for example, was first installed in premium cars in the early 1970s but an EU law ensuring all new passenger cars are equipped with it was only passed in 2007.

Driver training will have to adapt to changes in technology as new systems and processes are involved but the pace of change is slow here too. The newly merged Driving Standards Agency (DSA) and Vehicle Operating Standards Agency (VOSA) are remodelling the driving test to include the use of SatNavs in two or three years. But SatNavs were invented in 1981 and has been widely available in the UK since the mid-1990s.

The idea that politicians will rush in new legislation to facilitate the use of autonomous vehicles in the UK is also out of step with reality. I can remember when, as a traffic officer in 1985, we heard talk about tailgate and middle-lane driving legislation. These laws did come into existence, but only 28 years later.

Driverless cars have the appeal of sci-fi technology, but the legislative and driving standards changes required to get them on the roads mean they are unlikely to become widespread in the immediate future. New drivers are going to need to learn the basics. Most of us will retain control of our vehicles for some time to come.

The future of the car

The future of the car

How connected and autonomous vehicles will transform the way we drive.

This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK.

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