IT’S 2am and it’s raining and you are stranded in town. You pull out your phone and tap on the Uber app. The online cab hire company’s familiar map appears on the screen, showing a dozen taxis circling your location. You choose one and five minutes later it arrives.
So far, so familiar to thousands of people who often use the service. But then you notice one big difference: when the car pulls up, it has no driver. You validate your identity via the app and hop in the back, and the cab takes you home — autonomously.
It sounds like science fiction, but a deal struck in America between Uber and the state of Arizona brings the scenario far closer to reality than you might think. Under the agreement Uber is likely to become the first company to test autonomous cars without having a human driver present — a safety net that rivals, including Google, have so far had to deploy.
The development should strike fear into the hearts of taxi firm bosses across the world. Already smarting from being undercut by Uber’s current system, traditional cabbies now face being killed off all together.
However, the Arizona experiment has implications that go far beyond taxi drivers. According to Uber, driverless cabs will slash the cost of hiring a taxi and bring in a new era of personalised transport in cities.
According to Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, cabs are currently too expensive because “you’re not just paying for the car — you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.”
So we could soon routinely see thousands of driverless vehicles circling cities and being hailed remotely by people going about their daily business — travelling to work, doing the weekly shop, meeting friends and so on.
We could soon routinely see thousands of driverless vehicles circling cities and being hailed remotely by people going about their daily business — travelling to work, doing the weekly shop, meeting friends and so on
In fact, jettisoning the need to have a human “backup” driver overcomes a key paradox of driverless cars: as things stand — outside Arizona — even if you had an autonomous vehicle, you would still need to be present and alert at the steering wheel, rather than, say, reading a newspaper in the back.
Owners would also still have to deal with the familiar problems of having a car, such as finding a parking space at the shopping centre and being stuck in traffic. A driverless cab would allow people to alight at any point in the journey and go.
If it all seems fanciful, consider this: the Department for Transport (DfT) is drawing up a comprehensive code of practice that will allow the real-world testing of autonomous cars. It will be published in spring. The government has also promised a full review of legislation by the summer of 2017, which will include an overhaul of the Highway Code and adjustments to the MoT test. However, the DfT stresses that in all tests of the driverless technology the vehicle will be supervised by a qualified test driver.
America is even further down the road towards the legalisation of driverless vehicles. Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona, recently announced an executive order calling for pilot programmes of self-driving vehicles “regardless of whether the operator is physically present in the vehicle or is providing direction remotely”.
Ducey’s executive order requires that Arizona’s driverless vehicle pilot programmes take place on the campuses of public universities such as the University of Arizona. It also directs the state’s Department of Transportation, Department of Public Safety and “all other agencies” to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona”.
This means that when Uber does reveal its self-driving taxi, it will be able to ferry paying customers around the university legally from day one. And that moment may not be so far off.
The death of the taxi driver — and a revolution in personal transport — may not come tomorrow, but, as any black-cab driver will tell you: underestimate Uber at your peril.