Driverless cars are great, but do we really want them?

traffic lights by @Doug88888 FlickrDriverless cars: Can we trust them? Will they work here? Do we want them? Last week’s announcement that the government is throwing its weight behind piloting driverless automotive technology in the UK has sparked a bit of public debate.

The benefits to the general public once this technology reaches critical mass are straightforward: it’s safer and it’s greener. There is a death toll that we must pay to continue our love affair with the internal combustion engine and the sleek machines that house it. Thus, it’s inevitable that driverless cars are going to become a big part of our transport mix.

The benefits to the UK economy have the potential to be even greater. It’s worth getting in on the ground floor of any new technology, and the UK is uniquely placed to become world leaders in this particular one. As science minister Greg Clark said: “Britain is brilliantly placed to lead the world in driverless technology. It combines our strengths in cars, satellites, big data and urban design; with huge potential benefits for future jobs and for the consumer.” He’s right. We can and should get the jump on what is an inevitable change to global automotive behaviours. The sooner we get started, the better the cars, mapping and the safety and environmental benefits will be.

Marrying new developments in the technology sector with a manufacturing opportunity is great for our future economy – Nissan’s Sunderland operations expect to produce a fully driverless car by 2020 and engineering firm Mira is on the case as well.

Here’s the thing, though: you cannot underestimate the importance of street cred to the UK driving force. This is the home of Top Gear, after all. Electric car take up was glacially slow when the options were… a G-Wiz. Now that the makes and models have grown in number (and style factor), adoption has increased. Driverless cars will face the same hurdles, as the current Google prototype looks like something Hello Kitty would drive. I can’t see the boy racers hanging out in the B&Q car park popping the hoods of that vehicle. Market penetration is imperative – as with any new tech, it’s the user data from real life use-cases that will allow the engineers and manufacturers to refine the implementation. (We’re gutted to hear that you can’t “drive” them while drunk, that probably would have swung it for the majority of the UK populous.)

With only 6% of cars on the road in this country being new models, we are at the very beginning of a long process. Perhaps rather than attempt to sell driverless cars to a public who are fiercely emotionally attached to traditional automotive brands, we should crib a page from Helsinki’s book. Their proposed system will add driverless cars to the wider urban transport mix, something between a taxi, bus and Zipcar. This affords them a number of benefits: municipal governments can absorb the cost inefficiencies of the earliest models, but begin acclimatising their residents to the concept; the minimum viable product in terms of speed, mapping requirements, etc, can be rolled out little by little. By the time the driverless car is fast, cheap and under control enough for the consumer market to actually take interest in ownership, we’ll be ready.

I say we, but it’s the younger generations that will actually be instrumental in consumer adoption. Millennials are already more invested in social responsibility and ecological sustainability than their predecessors. It’s their hearts and minds that have to be won to bring driverless cars to the streets in significant numbers and they may be more amenable to the benefits of automation and less attached to the expression of individuality that cars represent. The change will come, though. The benefits will make it inevitable.

Lins Karnes, managing director and executive producer of production company B-Reel