Driverless cars in Britain? Why car innovation can only stretch so far

Unless autonomous cars also levitate, I'm not interested, and nor is my vehicle's suspension.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
Image via CNET/CBS Interactive

There's a phrase in Blighty that many drivers will respond to with a rueful, knowing smirk and nod: "We used to drive on the left of the road, now we drive on what's left of the road."

The last time I ventured out of my flat to run a few errands and pop round to a friend's for a hot mug of tea, I chose to go by motorcycle. The ride went to plan, until twice in rapid succession, crater-like potholes filled with a soupy grit that could not be avoided — without hitting motorists on the other side of the road — made the bike shudder and rise above the tarmac. Within seconds, needles of pain coursed up my back. By the evening, I couldn't move off the sofa, and it took two weeks to recover with the help of my physiotherapist, who realigned and pushed the seized muscles back into place caused by the worn and cracked road surface. 

This is only one of many, many tales which document the state of British roads, a land where cyclists have died after hitting potholes, taxi drivers sigh over taking their work vehicle back to the garage for axle and suspension fixes yet again — and the problem has been steadfastly ignored (in the same way as the pension black hole... wait, do we still talk about that?). 

It is estimated that for every 110 meters of UK road, there is at least one fault, and this costs motorists on average £2.8 billion in damage per year, as well as local councils £30 million in compensation claims. Not to mention injury, the occasional fatality, time off work and mass irritation which results in Brits muttering under their breath and writing the occasional angry, but politely-worded letter to the local newspaper's editor. 

Following severe and heavy rainfall — causing £1 billion in damage alone for motorists in January this year — some councils across the country pulled up their socks and began patching up aging roads. The UK government has increased funding for road repair by £168 million this year, but according to the 2013 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) report, if all authorities were given the budgets they need to fix their roads, it would still take England 12 years to catch up with the current backlog. Instead, road maintenance is estimated to be underfunded by 55 percent a year, or £1 billion annually. 

Cracks, pitfalls, potholes, underfunding and aging structure, however, are only part of the problem.

So, let's throw £10 million at driverless car competitions and hope shiny new cars will cool rising public anger. It doesn't surprise me, considering this government is the same body that is happy to spend up to £20,000 changing a single word on a page of the main UK government "gov.uk" portal — according to one member of Parliament (MP) I had a conversation with several years ago. But it's almost like handing a sweet to a child to stop a tantrum mid-swing to keep them occupied for a time.  

Business Secretary Vince Cable said this month that UK cities are now able to bid to host autonomous vehicle trial runs next year for a £10 million prize, and the proposals must be "business-led." He added:

The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as a pioneer in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects. Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months.

Encouraging innovation, exploiting business opportunities and potentially creating new jobs and improving the economy is a great thing. Driverless cars are cool and innovative, exciting and represent what could be the future of transport. But UK officials are missing the point. They don't levitate, and will be destined for the same, rising level of damage that British cars and drivers have to endure every year. 

The state of the roads in the UK leaves much to be desired in terms of basic safety. Autonomous cars won't change that — even if we want to relinquish our love of driving and hand over some of our control to computer systems.

"Without basic, safe standards in which to promote transport and vehicle technology, innovation can only
stretch so far."

One of the main reasons the UK government is pushing ahead, apart from the business opportunity, is to make roads safer.

Many accidents on the road are blamed on human error, and it is a fair enough statement to say this indeed causes collisions — from drink-driving to falling asleep at the wheel, failing to follow road signs through to lapsing in concentrating for a split second, which can cause imminent disaster.

However, it's not always the drivers' fault. The state of the roads, an infrastructure that has been repaired in a patchwork and often-shoddy fashion over the years, has not received enough investment and, despite emergency funds, is far behind in decent standards.

Without basic, safe standards in which to promote transport and vehicle technology, innovation can only stretch so far. 

You can argue that in the grand scheme of things, £10 million isn't a fortune. However, when the UK government claims that £168 million is "enough to fix more than 3 million potholes," then the funds due to be spent on this pilot program could certainly contribute to solving a problem which causes frustration and anger daily, can prove to be dangerous, and is a hazard for drivers which isn't mentioned when you pass your test. 

Sure, driverless cars are far more fun to talk about than tyre-busting tarmac chasms, but in the same way that electric vehicles are not supported by enough charging stations in the United Kingdom, there is only so far innovation can be implemented without improving the basic infrastructure in which these cars will need in order to perform. They may be hazard-seeking and laden with sensors and able to detect that looming pothole or crack in the road, but that doesn't mean a driverless car will be able to avoid it, or the consequences of being driven on roads which are claimed to be "third-world" standard by some.

Instead of pouring funds into schemes purely to be remembered and thought of as a high-tech, innovation-supporting government — before the next round of cat-fights, scandals, and cheesy party promotional posters appear — our ruling political parties should focus their efforts on making the roads safe for basic use by cars, motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists.

It might not be headline-grabbing, but it is a better use of public funds. If safety is really a core reason to promote innovative transport technology, then we need to see investments in the basics first.  

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