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Peter Cochrane: “By 2050, human driving will be game over”

Peter Cochrane, tech guru and former CTO of British Telecom.

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Where is automated driving headed? In the second part of our expert video series, tech guru Peter Cochrane explains why artificial intelligence is not the biggest challenge automated driving faces.

Let’s look at the big picture! At a recent developer conference of technology company Continental in Copenhagen, 2025AD had the chance to talk to several renowned experts from various fields. We asked them what impact automated driving will have on our society, how public trust in driverless cars can be created and whether humans will still drive cars in 2050. In the first part, bestselling author Martin Ford explained why he thinks humans will continue to drive in the future. In the second part, we interview Peter Cochrane, technology consultant and former CTO of British Telecom. Stay tuned for interviews with Club of Rome Co-President Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and artificial intelligence Oxford expert Michael Osborne in the weeks to come!

What is the prime driver of future technology?

You would think from the media that there will be a lot of prime drivers into this century but actually there are fundamentally only three. The first one is AI, the second one is robotics and the third is new materials. And the reasons are very simple. We face a series of problems that we just can’t solve and so we need artificial intelligence to help us with those and it’s everything from protein analysis to complex problems of traffic analysis and just about anything you can think of that has to do with weather, farming, earthquakes. That is the key reason for the AI. The robotics - we’re running out of skilled people. Our workforce is becoming thinned out and the complexity of the products that we are making demands that we have some kind of buddy working where there is a human and a machine together. There are also applications in medicine where we are caring for people but we don’t have enough people to provide that case, so robotics is key. Materials - we don’t see a future for sustainability based on raw materials that this planet provides. We need to create new materials, so we have coming down the pike steels and metals that are light as a feather but stronger than normal steel or metal. We have plastics that can do unusual things from being programmed for a specific color to storing energy. And these are the roots of the next industrial revolution: new materials.

What impact will automated driving have on our society?

Self-driving vehicles will have two key impacts. One, we will be able to achieve a much higher packing density of vehicles on the road, i.e. we don’t have to put so much concrete down for a given traffic flow. The second big impact will be a much greater safety. So, the crossover point is very simple from an engineering point of view. Once the auto-driving systems have fewer accidents or kill fewer people by at least an order of magnitude than human drivers, it’s a done deal. We will just click over to a 100% machine driving.

What does it take to create public trust in driverless cars?

Getting people to trust technology is just a matter of getting enough exposure and enough experience. For example, the German auto industry is actually rolling out autonomous robots onto the shop floor so the people can work with them. So that other people can see that they’re not getting hurt and that there is an advantage. When it comes to automobiles it’s a question of getting enough vehicles on the road with enough owners to spread the word with a positive experience, with so few accidents, so few incidents that people will feel safe. We have done this before. It happened with elevators and it happened with self-driving trains. And the only difference is that these babies are not on tracks, they’re on the road. So, there is just an added degree of freedom or danger. It’s a question of time.

What do you think of driver assistance systems?

I think this is another path to self-driving vehicles. You do it an increment at a time. I use automated speed setting (auto cruise) all the time. In fact, I rely on it so that I don’t get tickets from the police for speeding. Because I don’t have the concentration capability to keep watching the speedometer -  I find it very useful. The next one is automated braking. Once you’ve got that, it makes you relax because you can’t hit anything. So really, you’re just in the situation of setting the speed and pointing the vehicle and you just go. Lazy driving? Possibly, but I think it’s just very comfortable and very safe. The next step is: ‘please take the steering wheel of my hands- I’d be very happy to let go!’

What is the biggest challenge on the way towards driverless mobility?

Building a driverless car has got many challenges. I think the biggest one is not actually the artificial intelligence, but it’s the sensors. The sensors will operate 360 degrees, 24/7, in all weather conditions to detect things that are dangerous or unusual where the vehicle has got to take action. On one level, that technology is so superior to a human being, that by the time we recognize something is wrong and we start to make a decision – to the point where our foot goes down on the foot pedal is like a quarter of a second. The vehicle does it much faster than that with AI. But, if you get snow or mud on the sensors and you’re the driver and don’t know, that’s one difficulty. It is easy to fix in that you can put alarms on to say “please clean the sensors”. But we need very comprehensive sensors – not just sight and sound, but also infra-red, radar, the whole works. You need to see that the object on the road is a plastic bag rather than a dog or a cat. And you need to see through the fog.

In 2050, will humans still drive cars themselves?

I would guess that by 2050 it’ll be a done deal and there will be no one driving anything on the road. But certainly in 2030 you’re still going to have a lot of people driving on the road, purely from the fact that you have to replace this fleet of old vehicles. Even if we went to 100% manufacturing of self-driving vehicles tomorrow, it would take that length of time to eradicate all the old vehicles. So, I would think that by 2030 we may well have 20% of the vehicles that are self-driving and by 2050 I would have thought it will be game over.

How will you spend your time during the ride once cars are self-driving?

There are two types of people on this planet: Money-rich, time-poor or money-poor, time-rich. Unfortunately, I’m short of time. I can never find enough time to do what I want and I view driving as a waste of my life. It’s not fun to sit in traffic jam. I’d be much happier if the traffic jams were taken out by self-organizing vehicles that just rode along at 70, 80, 90, 100 km/h at 1m apart quite safely. That’s the upside for me: I just want to get there. I don’t want to actually drive.

About our expert:

Peter Cochrane is a futurist, business mentor, advisor, consultant, and angel to a wide range of government departments and international companies in the UK and USA. Throughout his career, Peter has worked across a broad spectrum including: circuit, system, and network design; software production and manufacture, machine programming, switching, and transmission; human interfaces; adaptive systems and control; AI and AL; company transformation and management system design.

Peter was formerly CTO and head of research for British Telecom. He has held numerous academic posts, including the Collier Chair for the Public Understanding of Science & Technology @ Bristol, and visiting Professor to CNET, Southampton, Nottingham Trent, Robert Gordon's, Kent and Essex Universities. He is currently a visiting professor at University College London. Peter has also received numerous prizes and awards, including the City & Guilds’ Prince Philip Medal, the IEEE Millennium Medal, an OBE, and the Queen’s Award for Innovation and The Martlesham Medal.

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