What will the impact of driverless cars be?

Matthew Derry, Smart Data & Technology Consultant
16 February 2017
Image of google electric car.
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With the advent of new technology a certain amount of disruption is to be expected. But in the case of autonomous vehicles, there is going to be a fundamental change, with large scale disruption to existing industries, infrastructure and social norms.

There are clear signals from the private (Tesla, Uber) and public sectors that the traditional form of driving will change in the future, and perhaps much sooner than one might think.

At the Community Transport Association conference last year, David Trousdale from the Smart Data & Technology team at Amey gave a presentation on the vision Amey have for autonomous vehicles (AV), and the work they are doing to establish the likely impact on society. This is an area of importance. Often, when emerging technology bubbles to the surface, it is the technology itself which receives attention. But, it is just as important to understand (and perhaps harder) the impact that technology will have on society, once it has been adopted.

So, how will AV impact society?

Improved safety

In a recent article written in the Guardian, it was highlighted that almost all studies that look into the safety of driverless cars suggest they will be safer than their traditional counterparts guided by human hands. This has been echoed by the Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose Tesla vehicles decrease the risk of accidents when compared to normal cars.

Lower costs and emissions 

In an age of austerity, with real wage levels decreasing, many people are finding it harder to make ends meet. Whilst there is no silver bullet, taking away the requirement for people to own a car will decrease the average person’s annual expenditure, sometimes considerably. Driverless taxis are a reasonable replacement and could be so cheap as to be more affordable than owning a vehicle – a taxi journey cost is mostly made up by paying the driver. The impact on the environment would also be considerable, as most of these vehicles will be electric.

Greater mobility

Mobility is also a key driver (if you'll forgive the pun) for AV adoption. The elderly and disabled currently have an ever diminishing provision for transport, provided by local councils, and this trend is likely to continue with budget cuts. Driverless vehicles will see a dramatic reduction in costs to the councils who provide transport services, enabling them to provide better services – and once driverless cars have been accepted, why not driverless busses?

Getting the balance right

The societal benefits of AV are clear, but it is important to recognise the negative aspects. Around 1 million people across the UK use driving as means of generating income. These people would be displaced in an AV society and would have to seek alternative employment. It may go much further than this however. Many economists are concerned the impact may be fundamental and long lasting. The retraining and education required to up skill workers in a heavily automated society will take time. There may be generations of people who are ill prepared to move away from manual tasks to more service based industries, and this could have severe consequences for society at large, if not addressed.

Society faced similar challenges through the Industrial Revolution when the agricultural industry became mechanised, farm labourers were retrained and found alternative work. Land productivity went through the roof, and this, I think, will be the transition society will go through with autonomous vehicles.

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