Ar e we nearly there yet?
Driverless cars, hypersonic underground tunnels, no more traffic lights… The Future Lab at the Goodwood Festival of Speed offers a glimpse of the shape of travel to come. By Jonny Cooper. Photograph by Benedict Redgrove
Driverless cars and hypersonic tube travel… Jonny Cooper sees the future at Goodwood
‘With Robocar, your brain really does freak out – but in a good way!’
Regular visitors to the Good wood Festival of Speed speak of a certain tang in the air. The annual four-day event sees a fleet of classic race cars and modern supermachines take it in turns to compete up the festival’s ‘Hillclimb’, a 1.16mile track that winds its way through Lord March’s 11,500-acre estate. Intoxicating whiffs of throaty exhaust mingle with fresh, South Downs oxygen, creating a potion that’s joyfully inhaled by hundreds of thousands of spectators, who watch while soaking up the early summer sun.
However, go down to Goodwood this year and you might be in for a surprise. In among all the combustion engines, there will be a collection of vehicles that call into question the future of mobility as we know it. Future Lab, an exhibition instigated by Lord March himself, promises to collate the big ideas that are jostling to shape the next generation of human travel, from driver less cars to hyper sonic underground travel. It’s as though the ghosts of automobiles past and present are about to meet the spectre of what’s to come. What will the Goodwood air smell of in the future?
‘Driver less cars alone have the potential to completely change the way we travel ,’ says
Future Lab’s curator, Lucy Johnston. ‘And they’re closer than we think. In his most recent TED talk, Elon Musk [the entrepreneur who co-founded US carmaker Tesla] said that by the end of this year, an autonomous car will be able to leave a parking space in Los Angeles, navigate all the way across America, and park in a space in New York. If you promise that on the TED stage, you have to be pretty sure it’s going to happen.’
Indeed, driver less technology is a battleground for the world’ s wealthiest companies, attracting eye-boggling investment from Silicon Valley and beyond. Name a big company and they’ve probably got a foot on the pedal: Uber and Volvo arguably lead the field, with a pilot scheme already running in Pittsburgh; Google has completed over two million miles of testing on public roads; Intel just sunk £12.5 billion into an autonomous-car tech company; Amazon is said to be looking at harnessing the cars for deliveries; and that’s before we’ve even mentioned the traditional car manufacturers – the BMWS and Audis, who all want a slice of the pie.
So it’s interest ing t hat rat her than use one of these big names to represent the future of driverless cars in her exhibition, Johnston has chosen the Robocar – a madly futurist ic, autonomous, elect ric car that was unveiled earlier this year by a British company of just 50 people. Robocar looks like a remote-controlled supercar that’s lost its top half: there’s no windscreen, no steering wheel, and nowhere for a human to sit. It can reach speeds of 200mph and is being tested on racetracks a round t he world – but spectators would be forgiven for struggling to identify Robocar as a car at all. And that, says Johnston, is part of the point. It forces spectators to appreciate the sheer capability of the technology.
‘When you first see Robocar, it spins you out a bit. You realise the future is now real. We read a lot about driverless cars by companies such as Google, but they still look like cars. There’s a seat for a driver to take control, so your brain doesn’t have t rouble joining t he dot s. With Robocar, your brain really does freak out – in a good way!’
Johnston is confronting a problem that the driverless car industry knows only too well: that the computer technology for these vehicles is far ahead of our readiness to accept them into our lives. Elon Musk may be ready to send a car across America with no driver, but that doesn’t stop the idea sending a shiver down our collective spine. Which is why stories about driverless crashes, like the one between a Google car and a human- driven bus last year, travel so fast around the internet. We want to see the devil in computercontrolled cars, rather than the detail.
‘Everyone went crazy when the Google car crashed into the bus, but the reality is that it was the first crash after millions of miles of testing ,’ says Justin Cooke, chief marketing officer of Kinetik, the company behind Robocar. ‘If any human had driven that many miles, there would have been more accidents.’
To help bridge this trust gap, Kin etikwilln ext year launch Roborace, a competition designed to showcase its car’ s capabilities, with teams of programmers striving to devise the most effective software and then running Robocar in front of spectators. In theory, Roborace will be to the driverless car what F 1 is to the manual car: the supreme testing ground for technology that will ultimately trickle down to the consumer. Only in this instance, speed isn’t necessarily of the essence.
‘Roborace isn’t going to be your traditional race,’ explains Cooke. ‘Safety is top of the agenda for this technology, so we’ re looking at setting tasks. Maybe the car ha store ach200kmh [125 mph ], then stop perfectly in a box .’ Other challenges being discussed include a game of chicken, where two Robocars speed towards a central line and have to stop as close to it as possible without hitting one another, and the introduction of robotic dogs on the racetrack – an idea borne from a testing session in February, when a real-life dog ran out on to the track and the Robocar swerved to avoid it.
Roborace promises entertainment, but that’s not to say its real-world application is anything less than extraordinarily serious. With the hardware (t he driverless cars t hemselves) already able to navigate city spaces and improving daily, an algorithm that can safely and efficiently con-
trol an entire car network has become the holy grail of autonomous transport. Find it, and the 97 per cent of accidents on our roads that are caused by human error disappear (Cooke says that, by comparison, a computer’s margin for error is ‘0.000something’). So too do traffic lights – instead, the computer can sort the most efficient flow of cars at any junction. No more sitting at red lights; no more slowing down a s ot her d r ivers r ubberneck a crash.
The social implications are as startling. While some of us would regain the time we currently spend behind the wheel, others would lose their jo b s . Es t i mate s su g g e s t t her e ar e a r ou nd 400,000 HGV drivers in the UK alone; in the US, driving a vehicle is the most common job in 29 of the 50 states. All would face redundancy in the driverless epoch.
We can also expect the face of our towns and cit ies to change sig nif icantly. The average car currently spends 95 per cent of its time parked in a drive or by the side of the road; that gets flipped on its head in a connected, autonomous system, where your next ride can be summoned at the touch of a button (much like Uber now, so you can see why it is keen to invest). ‘ You’d only need main roads,’ says Cooke. ‘All those side st reets running off B roads, where we currently park our ca rs, could be ga rdens for fa milies. Kids could grow up in air that has more oxygen.’
Combine all this with advances in manufactur- ing techniques – 3D printing offers an alternative to the traditional production line – and Johnston thinks it’s no exaggeration to say that we could be looking at the next industrial revolut ion. However, she’s ada mant that we shouldn’t be scared by the sp e e d at which te ch develop s . ‘When people spell out the doom and gloom, that robots and AI are going to replace humans, I always say: “Yes, but it will also produce more role s i n ot her place s t hat don’t yet ex is t .” When Si r Ti m Berners-lee invented the web, we didn’t know that 20 years later one of the biggest industries in Britain would be dig ital desig n. We’re humans. We think creatively and we’re good at adapting.’
The obvious question that hangs over all this is: when? When will our trust of driverless cars catch up with their potential? Cooke suggests we could see an autonomous network within the next five years. Desig n company Italdesig n, at Goodwood to show off its concept of detachable travel pods that use engines on the ground and propellers to fly through the air, says the radical v ision could become rea lit y wit hin 10 yea rs. Embrace the technolog y and it seems the possibilities become endless. But are we really so close to taking the handbrake off the future of travel?
Transport entrepreneur Robert Dingemanse is scept ic a l. ‘Some of t he concept s we see i n t ranspor t were t here in t he 1930s. Of course, we’ve improved the concept since then, but making something safe and accepted by regulators is another thing.’ He cites the example of two relat ively mi nor reg u l at ion cha nge s for t h re ewheeled vehicles in Europe, which were first discussed in 2002, agreed in 2011, and are yet to be fully implemented. ‘These things move in decades, not years.’
Dingemanse’s own project is Pal-v, a flying car that can reach 112mph on the ground and in the air, and will be commercially available next year (pre-orders start around £260,000, in case you’re wondering). It’s one of a handful of ex hibits at
Future Lab that look to use the ‘Third Dimension’ of travel – away from flat, congested roads and up into the air or down into the ground, where space isn’t at a premium. Pal-v is perhaps the most easy to understand: a small g yro plane-cum-car that wil l of fer r ura l communit ie s a nd t he superwealthy an efficient way to travel from door-todoor. At the loopier end is Hyperloop, a Musk- funded project that’s trying to shoot capsules of p e ople th r ough tu n nel s at ne a r-s uper s on ic speeds. If t hat one t a kes of f, we’re look ing at London to Manchester in 18 minutes flat.
Does all this mean that the humble car as we know it is dead? Is that tang in the air above Goodwood soon to be a thing of the past? ‘Not at all,’ asserts Dingemanse. ‘We’re still driving cars that are 100 years old and it will be the same in 100 years’ time. Autonomous cars and flying cars and tunnels will offer different modalities, but people will still want to drive themselves. Humans like to determine their own destiny. That’s freedom.’ The Goodwood Festival of Speed runs from 29 June-2 July; goodwood.com
‘Everyone went crazy when the Google car crashed but it was the first crash in millions of miles of testing’
The Pal-v flying car; available from next year The Hyperloop ‘train’, funded by Tesla’s Elon Musk, proposes nearsupersonic ‘tube’ travel