Could driverless cars make HS2 obsolete before it's even built?

As revolutions go, it’s a quiet one – dull-sounding Department for Transport reviews rarely create much fanfare.

But “Driverless cars in the UK: A Regulatory Review,” published today, marks a potential step-change in the way we move about the country in ways we can barely even consider at the moment.

All indications suggest driverless cars are broadly inevitable. Successful trials in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the US have demonstrated their safety, and the UK Government is now pushing on with trials of its own to build on work already completed in Milton Keynes. The technology is already in use in some places – the autonomous pods at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 are already using sensors to dictate speed and movement around the airport.

Having established that autonomous cars are no longer simply for fans of science fiction but are a coming reality, then, we can think about their potential future applications. Advocates, and there are many, suggest driverless cars will be safer, faster, more carbon-efficient than their driven counterparts. They will also be able to travel at higher speeds on motorways than current driven models; with sensors dictating safe distances between the autonomous pods, it’s not unreasonable to think that we could see vehicles whizzing round the M25 in complete safety at high speeds even during the most “congested” traffic periods. Similarly, freight shipments – which clog up the motorways and roads during the day, and are often parked on the side of the road overnight thanks to driving hours regulations – could be completed overnight, ensuring that traffic load is more evenly spread over the full 24-hour period.

What does this mean for other technology? For one thing, it means that traditional methods of “high-speed” travel could soon become redundant. A KPMG report in 2012 suggested “autonomous transportation infrastructure could bring an end to the congested streets and extra-wide highways of large urban areas. It could also bring an end to battles over the need for (and cost of) high-speed trains. Self-driving vehicles with the ability to ‘platoon’ – perhaps in special express lanes – might provide a more flexible and less costly alternative.”

If self-driving cars come on stream with the speed and effectiveness most expect, this wonderfully disruptive technology could completely transform the way we think about transport. They could also make HS2 obsolete before it’s even built – as the report notes, a gradual rollout of safe, high-speed lanes could well be faster, safer and significantly cheaper than building a grand projet at a cost of £50 billion.

Not one of the HS2 business plans has even considered the possibility of technological innovation in transport, a remarkable lapse – yet another reason why the Public Accounts Committee has expressed significant scepticism about the quality of the plans.

What a depressing irony it would be if the politician chosen to cut the red ribbon on the new HS2 in Manchester gets there from Whitehall in a cheaper, faster, and more carbon-efficient autonomous car.

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