One of my favourite films is the Player (less than a fiver on Amazon – a bargain) a darkly humorous look at what it takes to get on in the film industry; working in production rather than as an actor. The reason it springs to mind is that there are frequent scenes where ideas for new films are being pitched, and in order to convey a swift impression of a movie's premise they are all described as amalgams of previous blockbusters: "sort of West Side Story meets Apocalypse Now – that kinda thing".
And that is relevant to us Transport Times readers, I promise, because it highlights the difficulty of getting people to engage with a fundamentally new and potentially game-changing concept, such as the driverless car. Which matters if, like the good folks at the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, you are trying to get a better handle on how people feel – or will feel – about driverless operation, and what the implications could then be for how autonomy needs to be regulated and how, ultimately, it might affect our travel patterns.
Some of us spent a jolly afternoon recently in the catacombs beneath the Department for Business's swanky Victoria Street offices discussing ways the issues arising from driverless operation could best be brought to life for people who, unlike us TT regulars, don't spend their days reading the outputs from the many driverless trials underway across the world.
I have long been of the view that the key to unlocking this is not really to be found in discussing the technology. I have flown in aeroplanes on auto-pilot; I have travelled on the Docklands Light Railway. So long as someone suitably official has put the stamp of 'safe to operate' on the tech then, as a user, I tend not to think about it anymore, and I assumed others would feel the same, particularly once the novelty starts to wear off.
Rather I've long thought that the key is to focus on the cost to the user, and to some extent the business models that will make the vehicles available and determine how much we'll have to pay to use them.
What would an on-demand driverless car mean for the travel patterns of UK citizens? Well it rather depends what it's going to cost them, doesn't it? There's a presumption in the whole debate about driverlessness that the result will be a massive cost saving. It is that potential mix of cost and convenience that might, so I'm told, result in us deserting private car ownership in droves. Just imagine a dense, frequent, joined-up public transport network being available but with a degree of personalisation (pick-up and drop-off closer to where it suits you, rather than having to walk to a fixed stopping point). Sound good? Well to me it sounds like the situation we already have in fairly-inner London – plenty of public transport augmented by a lively private hire market.
Perhaps I'm wrong to put the cost front and centre. Perhaps we need to help people envisage a different sort of vehicle too. A vehicle for shared use, with distributed electric motors and no need for a driver opens-up fresh options for the designers.
But then I am reminded of something once said to me by a bus company boss when I was bemoaning the poor design and construction of many buses (even TfL's flagship hydrogen buses rattle and squeak their way around town), which was that as far as he was concerned a bus was a shed on wheels, and the further it departed from that model, the less he liked it because the more it was going to cost. The business model is likely to have a huge influence over the vehicle design, but the fact remains that we can't really be sure what the design, ultimately, will be. A bit like a railway carriage that drives itself, but on the road?
All of which, I suppose, sums up why we tend to end up describing things by reference to stuff that's already familiar. And when we ask what it is that people want from their transport options the answers tend to be about whether they are affordable, convenient, and comfortable, but for the trips that they are used to making, rather than for a wholly different approach.
Still we need to start somewhere, and while I'm sure that cost and the business model are still in there I suspect there is no better place to do that with my chums in Leeds, who brought home to me that I have been skipping rather too lightly past their first question which, to borrow another cinema reference, is the same as Laurence Olivier's memorable ask of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man – before we go any further: "is it safe?"