The pace of technological change and its impact on our lives is ever more evident each day. It also has profound implications for our experience as consumers, set challenges for established business models and has the potential to transform societal relationships and culture. In particular, researchers have focused on various classes of “disruptive” technologies which are rapidly advancing, showing signs of major capability breakthroughs and have the potential to radically impact the status quo in multiple dimensions. Whether commenting on LinkedIn, sharing a Tweet or debating within our companies or professional networks, we are all futurists now.
In the transport sector, the emergence of so-called Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVS), referred by many as Self-Driving Cars, fulfils the definition of being such as disruptor, with huge effects on highway design, the use of urban space, our journey experience and ability to recycle the time previously spent concentrating on the road towards other work or leisure pursuits. Automotive manufacturers, internet companies and transport brokers like Uber are now engaged in a global arms race to develop a fully-functional driverless road vehicle, get it to market, claim the technical standards and convince governments and regulators to rewrite driving and traffic laws around computers rather than people. Linked to parallel innovations around electric power-trains and shared on-demand delivery models like Mobility as a Service, the future of road transport has never looked more transformational than at any time since the invention of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century.
We therefore live in interesting times. Within a couple of decades we may wonder how we ever managed without autonomous transportation which can be summoned to our door at the drop of a smart phone app, alongside the satellite televisions, microwaves and laptop computers that we take for granted today.
However, before we get too carried away as consumers, we should consider our role as stewards and decision makers in our sector, and perhaps we should exercise a little caution. Rather than be wholly and uncritically beholden to technology, we should select concepts and products on the basis of the benefits they bring travellers and society as a whole, demand robust evidence that those benefits outweigh the costs and disruption of change, and above all else ensure that the enthusiasm in the hype of the latest innovation does not compromise or misrepresent safety, security and immediate public value.
Consider the impact of shared, on-demand CAVs on the millions currently employed as commercial and professional drivers, for example, who may need to be redeployed and reskilled. Autonomous driving may open up new points of weakness for hacking and cyber-crime. Or the scale of peak period passenger demand between home and work may still require high-capacity, fixed and scheduled mass transit, but whose business models may yet be undermined by the new flexibility and fickleness of the ability to change daily travel plans on the basis of an app-based travel broker.
To this end, to get the good whilst avoiding the ugly, a few ground rules are needed to temper and structure our response to technological change. These might include, for example:
· Continuously monitoring innovations and technology applications to assess potential opportunities, markets and pathways to downstream adoption, together with implications, opportunities and threats, for current policy and regulation;
· Prioritising innovations which offer tangible and demonstrable value-for-money improvements to users, or bring progressive economic, social and environmental benefits to the wider community;
· Ensuring that new technology is only deployed following rigorous testing and validation, where there is a documented user and safety case, all risks and liabilities have been fully evaluated and as far as possible mitigated;
· Setting clear standards for the generation, sharing and use of data and its dissemination across the wider Internet of Things in a way which is secure and protects consumers’ right to privacy;
· Ensuring that innovations are as inclusive as possible, assessing the impact on different groups and ensuring that no-one, especially the most vulnerable in our society, is left behind;
· Setting technical standards which are open and outcome-focused, avoiding over-prescription, not conferring excessive advantage on particular products or manufacturers, or running risks of rapid obsolescence;
· Reviewing regulations progressively and proportionately to anticipate, enable and proactively respond to change, balance the interests of industry with those of consumers and city governance, and remain clear, relevant and up-to-date; and
· Allowing private enterprise to lead the way within a competitive environment, avoiding public sector investment in its own products and services which are better left to the private sector under an appropriate regulatory framework.
Adherence to such rules are unlikely to eliminate the disruptive nature of many of the technologies now coming forward in our sector, and nor should they. Some key principles will, however, give us, as decision makers, a better chance of shaping the future to the benefit of society as a whole, separating tangible and demonstrable potential from unsupported hype, and avoiding overly ambitious moonshot advances which might grab media headlines, but prematurely compromise safety and public value. It is time, therefore, to stop passively following change and step boldly up to the challenge.
Jonathan Spear is Director of Strategic Transport and Intelligent Mobility with Atkins Acuity in Singapore, Fellow of CIHT and a former contributor to the PTRC UK Principles of Traffic and Transport Evening Lecture Series focusing on Transport Policy and Delivery. This article was informed and inspired by an interview given on Channel News Asia on current developments of CAVs, broadcast on 25th December 2016.