20 January 2017 | 7 °C

Opinion

When Will London Get Driverless Ubers?

When Will London Get Driverless Ubers?

Driverless transport is no novelty in London; the Victoria line has had automatic train operation since it opened in 1968 (though TfL has always chosen to man the trains). The DLR is autonomous, using human drivers only occasionally. The Central and Jubilee lines can operate without drivers too.

It's taken some decades, but now driverless cars are an inevitability in London. Where there are driverless cars, you'd assume there are driverless cabs. Question is: are driverless Ubers coming to London, and if so, when?

Photo: Jason Webber.

Are there driverless cars in London yet?

Sort of. In 2014 we took a ride on the self-driving pods at Heathrow Airport. Thing is, they follow a set route — and operate in a highly controlled environment. It's hardly the same as shuttling up and down the North Circular.

Greenwich's Gateway Project is trialling autonomous vehicles, but they're not on the road yet. Volvo, meanwhile, plans to trial 100 semi-autonomous family cars in London in 2017. The tech's not quite there yet, but neither is it a long way off.

Members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee visiting the Gateway Project in Greenwich.

Has anywhere got driverless Ubers yet?

Pittsburgh, and San Francisco (which is the home of Uber), are already trialling driverless Uber vehicles on the city streets. The trials have not been without tribulation; California regulators almost immediately ordered the cars off the streets of San Francisco due to issues of legality. Two of the vehicles were recorded running red lights.

And Uber has admitted to 'problems' with the technology after the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition released a warning about their vehicles.

These road tests also involve a human at the wheel at all times, strictly making the cars 'semi-autonomous'.

What's more, there are not yet fare paying Uber passengers in the cars, wending their way home after a large one in the Mission.

Yet the wheels are, so to speak, in motion. The plan is to have the driverless Ubers properly rolled out in the US around 2021.

So when might London get driverless Ubers?

We asked Uber. A guarded spokesman told us, "The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone. As demand for rides continues to skyrocket, the future of transportation will be a mix of human drivers and self-driving cars.

"We look forward to expanding our pilot and have nothing to share at this time."

Nothing concrete then. Read between the lines though, and driverless cars will likely become a priority for the company. And as London has in excess of 25,000 Uber drivers — and seeing as these drivers are now set to cost Uber more — London surely edges towards the top of the priority docket, following major US cities.

If the swiftness with which Uber arrived in London — in June 2012, just two years after Uber launched in the States — is anything to go by, the UK capital could have those driverless cars around 2023.

But it might not be that straightforward.

What obstacles will London throw in the way?

Each country and city creates its own obstacle for driverless cars. While San Francisco has roads with 30%+ gradients, London has bemusing gyratories, one-way streets, and an ever-evolving cycle network. London's cyclists will resist any technological blips that potentially threaten their safety.

Such obstacles, believes Steve McNamara of the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association, are an issue for companies like Uber: "There is clearly a long way to go before this technology becomes a truly viable alternative," he tells Londonist.

"As it stands, integrating a driverless vehicle into London’s already congested and overcrowded streets, would also be an extremely difficult proposition fraught with challenges and — as they have already found in California — could pose a danger to other road users."

An anti-Uber protest by cabbies in central London in 2014. Photo: DAVID HOLT.

Computer Vs hippocampus

It's not just London's practicalities standing in Uber's way. Cabbies and minicab drivers across London have been vocal against the American company. It's hard to believe London's seen its last Uber protest.

"In our view," says McNamara, "a driverless cab will never be able to rival the level of service that an experienced, knowledgeable London cabbie provides."

Though it might not be around the next corner, there will come a time when London's human taxi drivers will have to make their greatest stand against Uber yet. This time, that stand may well include Uber drivers themselves.

Last Updated 03 January 2017