However, according to one travel technology entrepreneur, autonomous vehicles should be taken seriously and, despite being in the early stages, are something travel agents should have on their radar.
“It is impossible for technologists to uninvent the concept of autonomous vehicles with so many well resourced companies all independently conducting research and development,” argues Alex Bainbridge.
“Autonomous vehicles will happen. That debate is over, now it is just a matter of when.” The future is closer then we might think, as many brands already offer “assisted” driving. Audi’s A8 enables completely hands-off driving in specific circumstances, with its “Level 3” category allowing the driver to switch off (but they must be prepared to take back control when prompted by the vehicle).
Volvo and Mercedes, among others, also offer degrees of self-driving on certain models. And this is the crux of the matter, Bainbridge believes – terminology and the fact “assisted” is rarely mentioned in the headlines.
“Autonomous versus human-driven cars reminds me of the online agent versus physical retail debate from 15 years ago,” he says. “Not a direct replacement service feature for feature, emotional experience for experience – however ‘good enough’ for daily needs.
“For irregular needs, existing solutions prevail: for example, you want to talk to a human when booking your honeymoon. Likewise you will want to drive a vehicle when towing a horsebox.”
However, speaking at a recent Cambridge Union debate, lawyer Nick Freeman – also known as “Mr Loophole” for his work helping celebrities with traffic and speeding offences – supported the motion “This House Fears the Mass Adoption of Driverless Cars”.
“Many people who have actually tested the driverless cars have expressed grave concerns about their safety,” he told the debate. “And what if they go wrong? What if they malfunction? What if they lose connectivity? What if the technology is hijacked by terrorists – can you imagine the carnage caused by hundreds of vehicles hurtling down the motorway colliding?
“Why am I so sceptical? The first test of a driverless shuttle in Las Vegas lasted less than ten minutes before it crashed into a van. Of course, it was the van driver’s fault – he pulled out of a junction assuming that the driverless shuttle would let him in. This is something drivers do every day, but there was no driver in the shuttle so nobody was being let out but, to be fair, it was an accident caused by human error, which could be eradicated by just having driverless cars.”
He added: “Can we have a legal system relating to road traffic law that is literally devoid of any criminality? No need to call the police, no need to breathalyse anyone, no need to punish anyone for dangerous or careless driving... Surely we need a legal system that accommodates certain eventualities.”
Scope for selling
Road safety regulations are currently being debated globally, with Germany leading the way. It has already cleared the way for its automotive industry to develop and test autonomous cars, and last summer approved a law setting out the conditions under which they could take to German roads. Bainbridge is adamant this is just the start.
“A single country could not ban autonomous vehicles as they would just put themselves behind on innovation, so legal restrictions will not hold this back either.” And in the future, agents could curate personalised tours for clients – from the hotel door to restaurants, museums or attractions. “Autonomous vehicles could follow city-based itineraries set by the agent. No longer does the agent have to sell a local tour from a local tour company; they could book an autonomous vehicle and program an itinerary.
“Agents will become customer profile gatekeepers, rather than distribution end points, so it will be about knowing as much as you can about your customer so you can personalise a tour. Accidents will happen with autonomous vehicles – the question is not about creating a zero accident outcome, although that is desirable, it is about being safer than the current levels.”
You can read lawyer Nick Freeman’s speech in full here
An autonomous car, or driverless car, is a vehicle that can guide itself without human input. In the travel industry, the term self-drive or self-driving car is avoided, as the term self-drive holiday involves the hiring of a car (or motor-home) for an extended tour of a region, on a route documented by the self-drive tour operator.
You can download the brand new 'Autonomous vehicles & auto-tours' whitepaper, written by Alex Bainbridge, here