A “Dystopian” Future: Are Self-Driving Vehicles The Future Of UK Transport?

You may have heard of auto-pilot mode in cars, but have you heard of vehicles that can drive all on their own? Whilst this may sound like an invention of the future, a new report led by the Department for Transport (DfT) has recently published its findings having completed recent trials of these vehicles, as well as its plans to incorporate them into UK infrastructure soon.

This recent test involved trialling SDVs to ferry people around Alnwick in Northumberland, Manchester City’s Etihad sports complex, and the town of Taunton in Somerset. 

With these self-driving vehicles already being tried out on UK roads, could these really be our motorised future and “bridge the gaps in the UK’s public transport network”?

Is There A Need For Self-Driving Vehicles? 

Self-driving cars sound like an impressive feat of tech and engineering. They rely on complex technology consisting of multiple cameras and range-detecting lasers to navigate and spot vehicles, pedestrians and other obstacles. But underneath all this pomp and ceremony, can they really be useful to our UK travel and infrastructure?

According to the results of a new government-led study, self-driving vehicles (SDVs) could be incredibly useful in mending the holes in the UK’s public transport network.

Not only was this survey the first of its kind in the country, but it found that up to 72% of people believe that these vehicles could be used to improve transport links – particularly in rural areas. 

When asked for more details on the kind of transport links these vehicles could improve, those in the survey put forward suggestions including better evening, night and weekend services. Additionally, smaller and more direct services, and shuttle services between villages and railway stations. 

People taking part in the survey also said they believed SDVs could have other handy uses, including cutting congestion and boosting the economy. 

What Did The SDV Trial Involve?

The study, led by the Department for Transport (DfT), involved trialling SDVs in three locations – a rural area, a town, and a city – to gauge public reaction to the technology. 

As part of the trial, an Aurrigo Auto-Shuttle was used to ferry people around Alnwick in Northumberland, Manchester City’s Etihad sports complex in Manchester, and the town of Taunton in Somerset.

A similar exercise was undertaken by an Aurrigo Auto-pod, which was trialled on private roads around Alnwick Castle and the walkway to Manchester City’s football ground.

Alongside the trial itself, researchers also exposed three different groups to low, medium and high levels of information about SDVs, and held a separate national survey as a control.

The results of this national survey showed that nearly a quarter (24%) of people believed that SDVs could improve public transport links. This opinion was shared by a notably high 63% of the medium information group, and 46% in the high exposure, both of whom were given trial rides on the vehicles.

Nevertheless, the national survey also revealed that the public still has widely shared doubts about the technology, particularly the use of fully-autonomous SDVs. 

Are There Doubts Surrounding SVDs?

So far, surveys have shown that the UK public is generally excited over the prospects of SDVs, but opinions haven’t all been this savoury. 

The national survey study highlighted the main concerns among members of the public were primarily over safety, alongside the possibility of job losses and the set-up costs for already cash-strapped councils. 

Nearly a third (32%) of those who took part said they felt uncomfortable using self-driving public transport, and a similar figure (36%) felt uncomfortable sharing the road with one.

A fifth (20%) said they believed SDVs could make public transport worse, while 14% believed it would make no difference.

Those who took part also raised issues over the loss of drivers and the loss of social interaction, as well as the possibility of becoming stranded if the vehicles malfunction.

A “Dystopian” Future

It’s safe to say that the UK public is not completely adjusted to the idea of fully-automated SDVs patrolling our roads. 

Currently, fully-automated SDVs are not legal in the UK. Of course, some vehicles such as Teslas come with self-driving tech built in, but SDVs are a different matter entirely. 

Some that took part in the study said they were worried that the promotion of SDVs would move us towards a “dystopian” future. Evidently, futuristic ideas of flying and self-driving cars are still concepts wedged firmly in the country’s imagination, not ready to be made into reality yet.

But, like it or not, this concept may indeed become a reality for the UK public, and you may not even need to wait too long for this to happen. 

In August last year, the UK government announced a £100m investment with the aim of getting fully self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2025.

This is a prospect that a lot of the UK public may feel excited by. After all, in the Dft study, records show that, after using the SDV services, the mood towards these vehicles improved significantly. Furthermore, after riding the Auto-Shuttle, 72% of the medium exposure group said they felt SDV could improve local transport links, compared to 63% before the ride.

The stats from the DfT study show that the UK public may indeed be ready to get behind the idea of SDVs on our roads. And, with government funding already in place to get this project off the ground, it seems that this idea, which seems so futuristic and “dystopian”, could become our reality sooner than you may think.