As I cycled to work this morning, I moved over to let another cyclist pass on a narrow bit of bridleway. There was a smile, a ‘thank you’ and exchanged comments about how nice it was to have a cooler morning, and we went on our ways.

The social element of cycling is one I greatly appreciate. It’s easy to stop, explore a different route or to offer help, for example to someone who’s fallen over or who’s car has broken down. Travelling by car is very different – we are devoid of many aspects of communication, cut off from the places we travel past or through and often worried about stopping, even to help.

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Few would argue that, in addition to bringing benefits, the car has had a hugely negative effect on societal interaction.

My thoughts then turned to autonomous vehicles, and in particular the fully (Level 5) autonomous cars that are the ultimate goal of those developing them. They’re touted as a solution to many of our transport woes, but will they exacerbate the anti-social aspect of travelling by car? And on a broader scale, is there a possibility that the problems they solve are outweighed by the issues they have the potential to create?

The social interaction aspect is perhaps tied up with the promise that autonomous cars will free up our time to ‘do more’. Is this likely to mean we simply spend more time on smartphones, on ‘social’ media, ever-more detached from the places we travel through or past? Or, for those that commute, it may simply result in lengthened working hours – unofficially, of course. Perhaps it will mean that the two-hour-each-way commute becomes more accepted – increasing energy consumption and traffic levels.

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Another huge potential benefit of autonomous vehicles in that traffic will flow more smoothly and accidents, especially in multi-lane roads, will be less likely. It’s also clear that autonomous vehicles work best when they are part of an autonomous vehicle network, communicating with each other and infrastructure to ensure smooth movement without collisions.

What they’re not so good at (so far, at least) is dealing with and communicating with non-autonomous road users – notably those that are more vulnerable and harder-to-‘see’, like pedestrians and cyclists. And drivers of other vehicles are currently pretty poor at dealing with the way that autonomous vehicles accelerate, decelerate and change direction. Coupled with the possibility that waiting in an autonomous car would likely become ever more unacceptable, can we be sure that governments and town planners will work to ensure that other road users – including pedestrians, cyclists and drivers of non-autonomous vehicles – don’t become low-priority groups? Otherwise, could these other road users ultimately be banned from more parts of the road network as preference (or exclusivity) is given to the vehicles that generate revenue and communicate with each other?

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Will we continue to use the freedom afforded by the car to stop at places of interest when the mood takes us – surely one of the joys of being able to move around is to discover new places – as we can today? Or will society be so keen to maximise journey efficiency that we cease to explore? Worse still, will the degree of control afforded to the companies that make and operate autonomous vehicles mean that we have less or no say over where we stop? Will stopping at a place of interest without giving prior notice or without justification and approval be permitted? Will part of the user agreement involve only stopping at faceless – and expensive – service stations that have a commercial tie-up with the operator of the vehicle we’re travelling in?

Finding a parking space will not be an immediate concern for those using autonomous cars – but the cars still need to be stored somewhere when they’re not being used. In theory, this generates enormous convenience – but the whole system needs thinking through carefully.

Let’s imagine that a local municipality decides to create a dynamic parking system, where the prices of parking spaces/facilities are linked to demand (much in the way that airline seats are) – will people be able to choose whether to spend less money parking further away, or will this desire be tempered by environmental protection measures that prevent empty cars travelling further than is deemed necessary or acceptable?

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Then there’s the potential environmental impact of the move towards autonomous cars. Yes, journeys that are far less prone to delays and that in theory involve little need for sudden acceleration or braking. But if the desire to achieve full autonomy results in a rush for vehicles, the number of new cars could be enormous. As many of those new cars will be full-electric or hybrid, that’s a lot of precious battery metals. And many usable cars could be removed from the roads well before they really need replacing, or they may become almost worthless.

In theory, autonomous cars open up enormous opportunities for sharing and renting; it will be interesting to see how long it takes people to accept moving away from having a car to using cars. It seems likely there’ll be a ‘tipping point’, where the benefits (whether ‘naturally occurring’ or created by governments or companies) make it unrealistic to choose the former model.

Indeed, control is possibly the most worrying aspect of the move towards autonomous vehicles. What would be the effects on civil liberties if autonomous cars were the only permissible cars on the roads?

autonomous cars

For any government who wishes to achieve, maintain or increase control of its citizens, the autonomous vehicle is potentially a dream. Electronic and automated payments will likely be the only way to get on board, so the nature of people’s journeys could become linked to their financial or societal status.

You can’t pay the premium fee? Take the slow route. Unwilling to listen to our sponsor’s message? Your vehicle will be the first one to stop at the busy intersection. Behind with your taxes? You can’t travel. Suspected of a crime (which in many countries can be a very loosely defined thing)? You’ll be diverted to the police station.

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At the moment there also appear to be no or few guidelines as to how autonomous cars will be integrated into society; and little thinking around how those who don’t use them, or pay extra, will be protected against the desires of the often large and powerful companies who are developing them and who seem likely to be involved in determining how they can be used.

Do these companies developing them really have society’s best interests at heart? After all, they are beholden to their shareholders, who want to see a return on their investment, rarely ask uncomfortable questions about how these profits are being generated and have first and foremost a duty to ensure streams of revenue rather than to effect genuine, positive and inclusive change.

The introduction of fully autonomous cars would result in job losses for people such as taxi drivers. This could take place smoothly but a rapid transition towards autonomous cars would possibly be accompanied by protest, even unrest.

What’s clear is that for every benefit autonomous cars promise, we’ll have to think and work very hard to ensure there’s not a serious downside.

NOTE: These thoughts and questions have largely been based on and posed around the assumption that fully autonomous will become a reality on our roads, and that travelling miles continue to rise. However, if previous visions of the future of transportation (jet-powered flying cars, anyone?) have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is inevitable.

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automotive, Autonomous cars, Autonomous vehicles, Autonomy, cars, emerging technology, engineering, future, Society, transport, transportation

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