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ProDriver Congress London, June 6, 2017 - Panel Session 4: Autonomous vehicles

Kevin Meeks, Volvo
Daniel Severin, Plan Insurance
Mike Galvin, Addison Lee
Bob Nixon, iCabbi
Safa Alkateb, Autocab

Kevin Meeks from Volvo gave an opening presentation on the subject of autonomous cars, outlining, with the aid of a short video presentation, the company’s DriveMe project.

DriveMe is designed to examine the impact - including the broader social impact - of increased autonomy levels in cars. One advantage of autonomy is that it is expected to improve traffic flows, reducing pollution and congestion. Volvo was well placed to take advantage of the opportunities in autonomous cars, given that it had already taken a lead in promoting many of today’s existing advanced driver assistance systems.

The DriveMe project, currently centred on Gothenburg in Sweden, was already producing vast quantities of data. Extending the DriveMe project to the UK, with its more complex road conditions, would provide an opportunity to validate those initial findings.

PD Congress Session 4 Kevin Meeks

Kevin Meeks: “Volvo’s target for 2021 is not to produce a completely driverless car”

Meeks emphasised that the current focus of Volvo’s work wasn't to produce a completely driverless car without a steering wheel or other major controls but one which could drive autonomously in conditions where traffic behaves predictably such as in traffic jams or on motorways, boosting productivity by “giving the time to the person behind the wheel to do something else.”

Volvo’s current target for 2021 is to produce a commercially available so-called “level 3” car, as the industry jargon has it. That’s a car that is able to drive itself for much the time - for example on motorways or in traffic jams - but still relies on the driver to be present in order to take control if needed, as opposed to a fully autonomous “level 4” vehicle.

From the floor, Mike Bell of Driven Worldwide pointed out that a lot of his company’s customers liked engaging with drivers and he felt that customer care training for drivers and chauffeurs could add value - or, as another delegate put it “coffee vending machines didn't put the barista out of business.”

Meeks thought that autonomous and non-autonomous cars would exist alongside each other for a lengthy transition period, and the full benefits would only come through once large numbers of cars had made the switch. Cost was likely to be one obstacle to a rapid changeover: the autonomous cars in Volvo’s Drive Me trial cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, while Volvo’s CEO took the view that the cost of driverless functionality was a feature for which drivers would be prepared to pay about $10,000.

PD Congress Session 4 Mike Galvin

Mike Galvin: “Many customers might not like the idea of sitting alone in a truly driverless vehicle”

Mike Galvin of Addison Lee put the subject in the wider context alongside other developments such as car clubs as part the wider trend towards “mobility as a service”. Technology was probably the easy bit, Galvin thought, but what about the cultural aspects?

Many customers might not like the idea of sitting alone in a truly driverless vehicle, for example, and drivers didn’t just drive the car - they kept the vehicles in a safe and tidy condition, and also helped “high touch” customers such as the disabled. These were all areas of advantage for private hire companies as competition opened up to non-traditional players.

Safa Alkateb of Autocab also felt there was an important role for drivers for the foreseeable future, with perhaps a “hybrid” model emerging of driven and driverless cars existing alongside each other, with driverless cars probably still being twelve to fifteen years away.

PD Congress Session 4 safa alkateb

Safa Alkateb: “if you took the driver away, a private hire company would turn into a car rental company”

As Alkateb pointed out, if you took the driver away, a private hire company could effectively just turn into a car rental company. On the other hand, private hire bookings were only a small proportion of the number of trips taken in the broader economy every day, and technological changes encouraging the emergence of transport as a service gave private hire operators the opportunity to expand their share of all trips.

Volvo’s Meeks pointed out that car owners were to some extent already primed for mobility as a service because the traditional model of car ownership had already been eroded through financing models such as PCP.

PD Congress Session 4 Daniel Severin

Daniel Severin: “who would take responsibility if an autonomous car were hacked”

One issue that attracted a certain amount of debate was the question of liability. Meeks expected Volvo to take responsibility for what happens when vehicles are operating autonomously but Daniel Severin of Plan Insurance pointed out that autonomous cars also posed other risks such as who would take responsibility if an autonomous car were hacked.

Bob Nixon from iCabbi thought the private hire business should take a less passive approach and try to adapt by innovating, perhaps by coming up with new services in consultation with local authorities and businesses, for example.

PD Congress Session 4 bob nixon

Bob Nixon: “Operators should come up with new services in consultation with local authorities and businesses”

One delegate, Tesla operator Ian Sheppard, pointed out that his cars were already capable of a high degree of autonomy but it wasn't possible for the driver to use the time this freed up to read emails or take bookings under current legislation.

Meeks explained that Volvo was already talking to the regulators in an attempt to clarify the issues by 2021 and that the UK authorities were adopting a more constructive attitude than those in most other countries.

A final, thought-provoking question came from Brunel’s Dave Goldring: what if an autonomous car was in a situation where it had to decide whether to avoid an accident – but kill some pedestrians in so doing – or take the hit, knowing its occupants would die. Meeks said he hoped Volvo’s systems would not allow the car to be in such a situation in the first place. 

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