Thought Leadership

Driving cars – something needs to change

By Colin Walls

I have held a driving license for over 40 years with quite a clean record; a couple of parking tickets and speeding fines – nothing too serious. I do not specifically enjoy driving or hate it; it is a means to an end. I like the freedom that it affords me and, for the time being at least, would not want to be without a car. But I see problems and something needs to change …

The biggest issue is the impact on our environment. Emissions from cars are one of the key factors in global warming and other air pollution. This is well recognized by the auto industry. The recent VW debacle highlights the issue quite well. Technology is beginning to help – cars are much cleaner and more economic than they were even 10 years ago. Electric cars may be the answer, but only if the power generation is clean too – otherwise the problem is just moving down the line.

There are two other issues that impact me on an everyday basis: there are too many cars and the quality of driving is getting worse.

As far as I can tell, overcrowded roads are a phenomenon throughout the western world and beyond. Although roads are upgraded to increase capacity, the builders are shooting at a moving target. The entire infrastructure is overloaded and it only requires a small incident – a breakdown or accident – to bring the system to its knees. I commonly use public transportation – trains – to avoid the problems, but demand is greater than supply there too.

It is inevitable, as humans are involved, that driving is not perfect. However, my perception is that the declining quality of driving is more than just human error. Many drivers go too fast, follow too close, are discourteous and take appalling risks, endangering themselves and other road users. Too many people regard driving as a competitive sport instead of a means to get from A to B. I am not perfect, but at least I try to do the job well.

I think that there are two possible solutions – changes to the way that driving is managed – each of which might address both of these problems.

The first idea is to improve the standard of driving in a simple way. As it stands [in the UK], driving licenses are issued for very long periods – normally they are not renewed until the holder is 70. They can only be taken away on health grounds or as a result of a criminal conviction. My view is that they should be made quite hard to get – i.e. the test should be very rigorous – and should expire after 5 years, at which time a new test must be passed. Similarly, if the license is lost as a result of a driving offense, a test would be needed before its re-issue. This would ensure that drivers had up-to-the-minute skills. Of course, it would be expensive. But, as driving on the road is a privilege, not a right, I would make the test fees quite high to the extent that there would be a profit, which would be invested in traffic policing and public transportation. Many people would never be able to pass, as they could not meet my proposed high standards [that might include me!], so they would not be able to drive, which would reduce the overcrowding on the roads. Fortunately, the public transportation will have been enhanced …

As I am sure that many people will not like this idea, I will move on quickly to the alternative: technology. Research to develop autonomous, driverless cars is taking place all over the world, with participation from some very high profile companies, like Google. I am convinced that this technology will come to fruition in just a few years. It seems a natural progression. Once upon a time, every elevator had an operator; now, the appearance of one is a rare anachronism. Driverless trains are far from uncommon. Autonomous cars and other road vehicles have the potential to make use of the roads much more efficiently and be safer as well. I can imagine that in, say, 20 years or so, driving a vehicle “manually” will only be permissible under special conditions and will require a specific license.

I sometimes ponder my own future and wonder how things will work out for me. I know numerous people who have reached a certain age when they decide that they should not drive any more, either as a result of poor health or just slow reactions. Others have the decision forced on them. That will be my fate one day – hopefully quite a few years hence. But the prospect of having a driverless car is something I find quite appealing. “Bring ‘em on” is what I say …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at