driverless cars and society - RSA

Blog: A driverless car dystopia? Technology and the lives we want to live


  • Creative economy
  • Design
  • Employment
  • Cities
  • Communities
  • Heritage
  • Institutional reform

Driverless cars are already a reality. They have millions of test miles under their belt. They are likely to be on our roads with some frequency very soon. They will be safer, cleaner, more convenient and more fun than the rugged old internal combustion engine vehicle. The 2020s could well be the decade of increasingly pervasive autonomous transport.

So what? At the end of the day they are just cars without drivers right? Wrong. They have a completely different logic to them. Think of driverless cars more as a train you don’t have to travel miles to board. They will communicate with each other and GPS devices to optimise your travel time. You will be free to work or entertain yourself while travelling in them. They could combine the freedom of the car with the speed and comfort of the best suburban or urban train systems (yes, many services fall well short of this!).

They will enhance our economy through consequent productivity gains and create a whole industry around their programming, sales, marketing, systems engineering, repair and upgrade, urban and suburban planning, design, energy solutions and much more besides. You’ll notice that all these tasks require fairly high level skills. Don’t be a taxi driver in this brave new world.

Suddenly the narrative is starting to turn towards the more worrying aspects of new pervasive technologies coming on-stream. And autonomous vehicles are just one of a wave of new technologies that will shape our economy, society and culture.

A piece by Noah Smith on Bloomberg earlier this week mapped a scenario of suburban explosion as a result of driverless transport. Remember, the suburbs were catalysed by the internal combustion engine. Our modern geography with its ways of life and social interaction was moulded in gasoline. Only recently has the inner city fought back. As social, cultural and economic clustering becomes valuable, inner cities have been reborn – albeit accompanied by some of the downsides of gentrification.

Noah Smith describes a new suburban vision of driverless transport. Low cost, convenient personal transport will create a push towards sprawl. People could increasingly self-sort thereby stratifying society further by class and ethnicity. Public transport, recently enjoying a renaissance, will go into decline once more, used only by those who are disadvantaged. It is a dystopian vision. But luckily, we do have a choice.

There is far bigger perspective here. It is very difficult to look at the rapid and pervasive spread social web and smart devices, advanced and widely available robotics, biotech (‘gene editing’ is already a reality for treating Leukaemia), all infused with artificial intelligence and not see human society creeping towards a new realm. We have been here before but this time we can make choices. Anyone who has read the wonderful Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari will be taken with how the transition from a foraging to an agricultural society was largely disastrous for most humans. In fact, Harari describes it as humans becoming domesticated by wheat rather than vice versa. But what did they know? We know that turns of history can be disastrous but what are we doing about it?

We are failing to ask a basic question: what sort of society do we want and how can technological innovation help us achieve it? Instead, the question is often posed as if technological change is some external force of nature to which we have to adapt. We were once domesticated by wheat; we are now at risk of being domesticated by technology.

Instead of the sprawling suburban dystopia, why don’t we deploy driverless transport to make cities ultra-connected? Instead of an ultra-car society, why not make these new technologies part of a sharing economy? Let’s adapt our transportation system so significant preference is given to shared transport and social forms of city life. Let’s think about neighbourhoods – both in the urban and suburban environment - that intermingle, cherish diversity, and reconfigure work alongside home life with culture and vivacity spread and shared.

We’ve seen what happens when we go the other way. How many towns and cities have had their culture, common life and heritage dismembered by our failure to understand how the dominant mode of transport interacts with geography and culture? Retail parks and noose-like ring roads have separated people from place. It’s a tragedy as our heritage, identity and place project indirectly makes clear.  

In the Telegraph, James Kirkup reflected that the ‘gig economy’ (think music acts) is upon us yet few politicians have even noticed. Labour barely noticed that the workforce moved out of factories into call centres, retail outlets, small offices and one-person enterprises. What chance that it will notice that the workforce is now moving back home or into coffee shops or shared workspaces (artisan or freelance)? The Conservatives meanwhile put their head down and elevate traditional notions of productivity above all else. Man (or indeed woman!) shall not live on productivity alone.

There needs to be a bigger public debate about the type of society we want, how technology can help us, and what institutions we need to help us all interface with the changes we are likely to see. Could block-chain, bitcoin and digital currencies help us spread new forms of collective ownership and give us more power over the public services we use? How do we find a sweet-spot where consumers and workers – and we are both - share equally in the benefits of the ‘sharing economy’? Is a universal Basic Income a necessary foundation for a world of varying frequency and diverse work arrangements and obligations to others such as elderly relatives and our kids? What do we want to be private and what are we happy to share with companies or the state? Should this be a security conversation or bigger question of ethics? How should we plan transport, housing, work and services around our needs and the types of lives we want to live in communities that have human worth?

Right now, there should be cacophonous democratic conversation. Instead, there is silence interspersed with sensationalism. It is not clear that politicians are capable or interested enough to lead the debate. So we’ll have to do it for ourselves. When we moved from foraging to agriculture it was a process that took generations. This time we may have little more than a generation to take the harness – maybe even less. What are we waiting for?

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