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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS -

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

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