It has been nearly a year since Volkswagen admitted they had intentionally programmed 11 million cars to cheat emissions testing. VW had invested heavily in flawed diesel technology and wanted to max out its investment. Cheating allowed them to market fraudulent ‘clean diesel’ passenger cars as the way forward. Following tax breaks and encouragement to go ‘green’, London licenced diesel vehicles rose to a record 774,513 in 2015. Diesel fuel is responsible for 40% of air pollution in London.
There are 1.1 million people everyday in London who suffer from respiratory conditions and are vulnerable to unhealthy air pollution levels, according to the British Lung Foundation. High spikes in air pollution can also trigger heart attacks and permanently stunt the growth of children’s lungs by up to 20%. Last year Kings College published a paper entitled ‘Health Impacts of air pollution’ Experts believe 9,400 may have died prematurely in 2010 from exposure to Nitrogen Dioxide and PM2.5 particulates, primarily from diesel emissions.
Electric Vehicles are often referred to as ‘zero-emission vehicles’ in London. However in 2010 a Renault advert claiming its Electric vehicles were ‘zero-emission’ was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. It was pointed out that a vehicle charged using energy sourced from UK national grid would be majority coal and gas powered as renewables only make up a very small proportion of the Electric Grid. This is still the case. There are also additional non-tailpipe emissions caused by brake and tyre wear and production. As Jenny Bates of Friends of the Earth has commented, ‘There is no such thing as a clean car’.
Driverless cars are being marketed in London by the automobile industry as being safer than human drivers. In Greenwich, Ground Drones or self-driving delivery robots are being trialled on pavements this summer, with council permission. However there has been no consultation on the implications for public space. Pavements are a soft target for driverless robots but the creep is noted. There will also be the first trial of autonomous vehicles in UK probably in the boulevards around the O2 as part of The Greenwich Automated Transport Environment project experiment.
At the Hackney Cycling Conference in June, Market Leader James Long of ‘sustainable’ transport consultants Steer Davis Gleave talked about an ‘arms race’ to install driverless vehicles on the streets of London. This was an unfortunate turn of phrase as Stephen Hawking has warned of an ‘Artificial Intelligence arms race’ that is not far off a ‘Terminator’ style nightmare.
In 2015 Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million vehicles after a car was hacked in US and the software manipulated so that it could be ‘driven’ by remote control. Researchers have shown that autonomous vehicle controls are vulnerable to hacks. Such vulnerability creates a very real security threat. Last month, a Tesla driver was killed by his own car when the sensors failed to detect a tractor in bright sunlight, whilst on autopilot. Bradley Stertz of Audi has conceded that ‘To have a car understand every single possibility is a massive challenge’
However many believe Silicon Valley has few scruples about rolling the dice with public welfare. Uber has already been whining that there is too much ‘safety’.
Producing a driverless car, which aspires to achieve the impossible task of understanding every single possibility, is very costly. A self-driving car costs twice as much to produce as a conventional car. The business case for driverless vehicles only works if there are large numbers or fleets. This vision of mass production of driverless vehicles dominating cities like London has got corporations chomping at the bit. The only problem is that humans get in the way. Cyclists are ‘difficult’ for self-driving cars as they don’t behave like a pedestrian or motorised vehicle. They are also re-programming self-driving vehicles to be more aggressive to override ‘polite’ giving way to pedestrians.
As with other cars, driverless ‘mobile couch potatoes’ in no way address the public health crises of inactivity, urban diabetes and obesity.
Dieselgate is a lesson in just how far car manufacturers will go when they have invested in a flawed technology. Volkswagen thought they could get away with it; and they did, for six years they sold illegal vehicles and the sophisticated software algorithm was not discovered. In fact it was never *found* but offered up only when there was no explanation for the discrepancy between laboratory and on the road emissions. Naively Government had relied on the automotive industry to self-certify. Why would we rely on self-certifying car manufacturers of driverless cars when the technology could be loaded with vulnerable, unfathomable and possibly rigged software? Or worse?
And then there are gremlins. Machines go wrong inexplicably. We have all experienced our computers crashing at our desktop, sometimes at the most inopportune time. Just imagine that scenario sitting at the dashboard of a moving self-driving car on a busy London Street?
Safer London Streets, that are fit for humans, require a significant reduction in traffic says ‘Human Streets – The Mayors vision for Cycling three years on’. In Oslo, car-free plans aim for ‘as little as possible’ motorised traffic, including electric cars, ‘they just take up too much space’.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has announced that Oxford Street will be motorised traffic-free to cut unhealthy air pollution and road casualties. Bank junction and Parliament Square may also follow and go car-free.
Of course minimising motorised traffic in London won’t make money for the automobile industry but then again you never see broccoli being advertised on TV!