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Electric driverless cars could make petrol and diesel motors 'socially unacceptable'

Plus: Developers 'not part of your value chain'

By Gareth Corfield, 13 Jul 2017

FISITA Plus Connected vehicle folk ought to spend less time worrying about the trolley problem and more time concentrating on connected tech instead, Transport for London's Michael Hurwitz told the FISITA Plus mobility engineering conference this morning.

"We spend a lot of time thinking whether the car should take out the child, or the granny... all this sort of stuff," said Hurwitz.

Instead, he argued, engineers should worry a little less about the famous trolley problem – "jumping straight to the AV in CAV [connected and autonomous vehicles]" – and look at ways of "connecting and sensing" with current vehicles.

The trolley problem is a famous conundrum beloved by ethicists and involves deciding whether a runaway railway vehicle should kill a small number of people or a large number of people, depending on which track it takes. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a neat little interactive set of questions themed on it, accessible here.

Giving the audience of C-suite executives and engineers an insight into what TfL looks at when considering whether to allow CAV trials in London, Hurwitz said the authority tries to balance three competing priorities: "What the customer wants; what's economically viable; and what the city needs."

He appeared to suggest that autonomous road vehicles are not the panacea to London's transport problems that some have suggested: "Things like [Crossrail] start to make sense: 160m long trains, 30 trains per hour each carrying 1,500 people. You'll never be able to provide that density or throughput on the surface – definitely [not] in a car – that you can with that kind of capacity carrier. That's the kind of capacity we need."

Greenhouse gas emissions were also a topic of some lengthy discussion, with Bernhard Biermann of powertrain designers FEV telling the audience: "Beyond 2021, towards 2025, we need to put more effort into propulsion systems to reduce CO2 fleet emissions."

Electric vehicles are the obvious solution to that particular problem, with current experiments into driverless electric vans potentially showing us what the future will look like. Biermann saw the two technological strands as going hand in hand.

With the future seeming to be purely electric and driverless, someone from the audience asked: "Is the internal combustion engine going the same way smoking is now, is it going to be culturally unacceptable? We'll have to have electric vehicles because it won't be socially acceptable otherwise."

"I do think the trend is slowly moving that way," answered Hurwitz. "To have a global shift will take many years, but you'll see it quite actively in future years."

Meanwhile, Professor Walter van Dyck of the Vlerick Business School commented on the wider implications of fully autonomous vehicles. While the technology is reaching the stage of public usability, the real hurdle it has yet to overcome is public acceptance, he said.

"If I take this to a level 5 autonomy car, driven by a robot," he said, "I'm only going to use it if I'm sure this automated taxi is going to bring me to the place I want. In innovation we often talk about disruption. In essence I believe autonomy is truly disruptive in that it creates new markets – as opposed to radical innovations – the fancy things that eat into markets."

Professor van Dyck also spoke in favour of traditional car manufacturers reinventing themselves as platforms, in the tech company sense that Reg readers love to hate. If your firm is a platform, he said, you stand a better chance of generating an "ecosystem" and thereby boosting customer loyalty to your brand: "Developers are not part of your value chain; they are a separate business but complement your value chain. The more apps you attract, the more customers you get. That's why platforms beat products – network effects enhance customer loyalty." ®

FISITA is the umbrella organisation for the national automotive societies around the world. The Register was the official media partner for the FISITA Plus conference.

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