A new report has found that autonomous cars will boost the UK economy by around £8 billion a year just by supporting disabled people. But this effect may prove more crucial than is appreciated.

It’s a funny thing, when you talk to people about the idea of autonomous cars you often hit a wall of cynicism. ‘But I like driving’ say some, others point to what they see as the ‘very obvious point’ that computers cannot make life and death decisions like humans can. Truth is, if you were brought up in an age when driving was a key part of your life – your car may have been your pride and joy – there is this massive psychological barrier. But doubts about safety don’t add up – not in the long run, this is evolving technology, it will get better and better, and eventually offer overwhelming advantages over conventional cars.

The biggest barrier to autonomous cars won’t be technology, it won’t be regulation, it will be the attitudes of the public.

And this will be overcome gradually.

The latest research, this time published by The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, did not draw attention to this resistance, instead it found that six in 10 people say connected and autonomous vehicles will improve their quality of life – this is no doubt right, but the four in ten who don’t think that represent a massive hurdle.

The report also found that half of young people would use an autonomous car or connected car today, if they could.

Of course, the flip side of that is that a lot of older people feel quite differently.

But the research also found that the UK economy could be given an £8 billion boost just by providing autonomous cars to disabled people who currently rely on public transport.

This is indeed a key benefit – but see how this will pan out.

To begin with, older people, especially those living in rural areas, will resist the idea. But it will take early adopters to change attitudes.

But it will take early adopters to change attitudes.

And in this respect, the advent of autonomous cars will be quite different from what are we used to.

New products always need early adopters – but usually these early adopters either have high disposable income, or they require the product for a high-end purpose. The early computers cost millions of pounds, the early PCs thousands of pounds, the adoption cycle began with large corporates and trickled down over time to a true mass market.

For autonomous cars, it may be quite different.

Early adopters will probably be disabled people who can’t drive for physical reasons, and teenagers, whose parents balk at car insurance premiums.

People who live in large cities where traffic congestion is a major issue will also be early adopters.

These are the people that will be the catalyst for changing attitudes.

But the SMMT has said that the UK must adopt this technology.

Mark Couttie, Strategy& partner, at SMMT, said: “There is a real risk that this momentum and competitor advantage in the UK will stall if we don’t do more to create positive public perception, overcoming our inherent risk averse culture. Expanding people’s horizons about the advantages of fully autonomous cars is a vital first step. This means better communicating the art of the possible to increase social acceptance and dispel concerns that our survey identified relating to cost and safety. Significant investment must also be made to improve the connectivity infrastructure across the UK road network and this report provides a number of clear recommendations to ensure that we capitalise on this window of opportunity.”

He is right, but the fact is, connected cars, when we share autonomous cars, will have a devastating effect on the global car industry.

The existing car industry has to adopt the technology or it will be left irrelevant, but the technology may end up making much of it irrelevant anyway.

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