If someone mentions ‘driverless vehicles’, my brain immediately thinks of Tesla, the United States of America, and the year 2050. What if I told you we could be a lot closer, both in terms of timeline, and geography? On the 20th of January 2023, 22 people travelled from Fife to Edinburgh, across the Forth Road Bridge. There were passengers, and a ticket conductor, but no driver behind the wheel. Well, at least not one actually driving.
Project CAVForth, which has been hailed as “the world’s most ambitious and complex autonomous bus pilot”, is a scheme part-funded by the UK government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and Innovate UK. The project was launched in 2019 and is currently running a two-week trial with Stagecoach, and other partners, taking passengers from Ferrytoll Park and Ride in Perth to Edinburgh Park, which if successful will transport an estimated 10,000 passengers each week.
The project is eventually expected to change the lives of 6 out of every 10 people in the UK with major safety improvements, reduced congestion, decreased carbon footprint of the public transport sector, and the creation of new jobs. A survey of more than 3,600 participants suggests that this technology will have the greatest impact on the most disadvantaged groups in Scotland, particularly those with disabilities, young people, and the elderly population.
The autonomous vehicle sector is rapidly expanding, and could have a really positive impact on the economy, and even on the environment. It is estimated that up to 320,000 jobs will be created by 2030 in the UK alone with increasing technology and demand for autonomous vehicles, and the Society for Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) has predicted the sector will generate £51 billion for the British economy within that time.
Human error is recorded as the cause of 95% of all road traffic accidents so a movement towards autonomous vehicles is estimated to prevent 25,000 serious accidents and save roughly 2,500 lives between 2014 and 2030. An automated driving system will also mean greater fuel efficiency, which will be kinder to our planet and our purses, especially with the implementation of electric autonomous buses and other vehicles.
But this is no use if no one will actually use them. The idea of self-driving vehicles is one that still feels quite foreign to a lot of us, and a significant proportion of the population is still uncomfortable with it. A study in America showed that only 57% of those familiar with self-driving cars would be happy to use one, and in a test group in the UK, despite 85% of participants saying they were happy with autonomous technology, only 46% would be comfortable sharing an autonomous vehicle, like a shuttle, with a stranger.
While these stats aren’t promising, perhaps seeing more self-driving vehicles on the road and hearing about the current successes of the CAVForth trial, will instil some more confidence in people. After all, one of the passengers to try the first journey across the Forth Road Bridge in the new bus, Fleur Dijkman, said that she “wasn’t worried at all about it. You wouldn’t know the difference between this and a normal bus from the driving.”
Technology has improved at exceptional rates in the 21st century and our world is changing dramatically. Flying cars and jetpacks haven’t yet become the norm but it is very likely that soon self-driving vehicles will be, and Scotland has the opportunity to be a world leader and be in the driver’s seat when it comes to autonomous public transportation. If all goes well, CAVForth and Stagecoach have said that we could expect a fully autonomous service on this route to be implemented by the spring of this year.
It’s a long road ahead and most services won’t have driverless buses, at least not for a while, but the future of public transport could be changing forever, right on our doorstep.