Driverless Cars: Could Vehicle Ownership be Relegated to History?

Driverless cars could eventually result in the death of car ownership, according to Phil Williams, project manager of the Technology Strategy Board special interest group Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

Williams, who was speaking at RE.WORK’s AI & Robotics Innovation Forum, said: “The likelihood is that we will see a reduction of car ownership”.

He said that transport was likely to move towards being a service. “Today it’s called a taxi,” he added. “In 10 or 15 years time it might be an easy car.”

This change would be likely to come about because payment-per-trip would increasingly become the most affordable option. Williams highlighted how insurance, MOT and road tax are already proving too expensive for some, and suggested that as driverless cars became mainstream they would make the cost of individual journeys much cheaper.

The percentage of young people learning to drive in developed countries has been on the decline over the past few years, a trend that experts are connecting with rising costs of car ownership and driving lessons and the increase of online activities.

driverless-car-landscape

Hugo Elias, senior engineer at Shadow Robot Company, also indentified a likely move towards driverless taxis and away from ownership.

“By 2020 every car manufactured in the past 10 years will be driverless, 10 years after than perhaps all cars will be driverless,” he said.

“Perhaps at some point in the future almost nobody will own their own cars.”

He argued that this could result in fewer cars in operation. Unlike now where most cars spend a large percentage of their service life sat in garages or driveways, driverless taxis could run almost all of the time, meaning a smaller number would be needed for the same number of people.

This, Elias believes, could have an impact on the design of cities. There would be a move away from car-centric cities such as Los Angles, and a rise in smaller cities built to accommodate pedestrians and bikes, such as Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

driverless-car-portrait

However, Paul Newman, BP professor of information engineering at the University of Oxford, was keen to stress that fully driverless cars that would operate completely autonomously were a long way from being a reality.

“This is a technology that’s going to blend over time. It’s not going to be a step change,” he said.

Newman, who is involved in the development of the first road-legal driverless car in the UK, argued that the technology that is underdevelopment at present is “hands-free driving” that still requires drivers to be alert and ready to take control.

“Insurance will disable the car if you sleep in it,” he said.

He did concede that truly driverless technology could eventually be possible, but argued that this was a very long time away. Newman said: “Maybe many, many, many, many years down the line you may not be facing forwards.”


Images courtesy of Mike and Maaike.


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Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.