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Hot topic: What will driverless tech mean for travel?

The future is now: self-driving cars and even flying taxis are already being trialled in some of our favourite destinations, but do they herald automated getaways, or the kind of sci-fi, AI dystopias seen in the movies?

Hot topic: What will driverless tech mean for travel?
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In the cult ’80s flick Back to the Future, Doc tells Marty that drivers in the year 2015 “don’t need roads”. In real-life 2017, visitors to Dubai won’t need drivers either, as the world’s first autonomous aerial taxis (AATs) are set to ply the skies — without pilots. Modern tech has never seemed so much like a sci-fi film.

Dubai trialled a one-seater model in July, and two-seater AATs — capable of flying for up to 30 minutes at 30mph, with a top speed of 60mph — will begin trials this autumn.

While smart cars have been able to park themselves for some time, driverless technology is big news, mirroring the silver screen’s dreams of tomorrow. Trials are happening across the globe: Paris is planning a driverless, 200mph high-speed train for a 2023 public launch. Around 10,000 passengers have already travelled on Navya driverless shuttles in Las Vegas trials, and Tokyo is planning to have driverless cabs in time for the 2020 Olympics. There are even rumours of driverless shuttle tests happening at Walt Disney World, although the Mouse remains tight-lipped on the subject. Closer to home, Milton Keynes and Greenwich are trialling transportation pod networks for pedestrian precincts.

But is all of this safe? Mattar Al Tayer, director general of Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority, says: “The AAT has high-safety features, thanks to its design comprising 18 rotors to ensure safe landing of the taxi in case of any rotor failure.”

But Roger Connor, curator of Unmanned Systems in the Smithsonian Institution’s Aeronautics Department, isn’t so sure. “Very significant questions remain about safety and reliability. We have many miles to go before this concept becomes truly viable,” he says.

So how much tarmac will we need to cover before driverless cars become the norm? Well, over in the US, Uber has been working with Volvo and Ford to trial self-driving Uber cars in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Tempe, Arizona, since last year. Although the cars drive themselves, there’s been a cabbie present to take control if necessary — but that hasn’t prevented accidents. In San Francisco, one vehicle reportedly ran a red light, while, in Tempe, another vehicle was involved in a collision — one that sources say was the fault of another human driver. Tech developers now face the challenge of creating AI that accounts for the errors — and arrogance — of human drivers.

Joanna Wadsworth, from the City of Las Vegas’s Transportation Engineering Division, agrees: “Automated vehicles, if deployed properly, could provide a significant positive impact.” AI drivers would certainly make drink-driving a thing of the past.

So are we becoming obsolete, to be replaced by computers? Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has expressed several concerns about AI developments, referencing the Terminator films’ out-of-control supercomputer, Skynet. Personally, I’m hoping for something a little more like Herbie (The Love Bug, 1968) in my future unmanned automobile experiences.

Q&A

What does this mean for the future of travel?
Holiday pods might one day pick you up from your hotel and whizz you around a destination’s highlights, with the voice of William Daniels’ KITT from Knight Rider (1982–1991), acting as a dry-witted tour guide.

Could passenger drones be vulnerable to hacking?
The Smithsonian’s Roger Connor says: “Any autonomous system that relies on networked connectivity could be vulnerable to cyber-attack. This issue is still largely unresolved.”

What other movies feature driverless cars?

Well, there’s the AI Audi (I, Robot; 2004), the Lexus 2054 (Minority Report; 2002), the Batmobile (Batman; 1989) and driverless 4x4s (Jurassic Park; 1993). Let’s not think about Stephen King’s demonic Plymouth Fury (Christine; 1983).

Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)