Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS)

Societal impacts of autonomous cars and mobility solutions

haydn.thompson Friday September 15, 2017

Already we are seeing a proliferation of Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) being rolled out onto the market. A major step forward though that would have truly profound implications on society would be the adoption of fully autonomous cars (so-called level 4). At this point there is no need for a driver and the car could operate with or without a driver on board. This opens up a number of interesting scenarios that could radically change our society. With a totally autonomous car occupants would have the option of doing other productive tasks while travelling. This would allow passengers to use their car as an office further blurring the distinction between home and work place, it could allow them to surf the web, watch a movie, study and gain new knowledge, interact with friends and relatives or even sleep. How this new free time is used is up to the occupant.
So there are lots of other more productive things that we could do and no doubt there will be no shortage of new business opportunities to sell services tailored to commuter preferences. However, being engrossed in other activities naturally impairs the ability of occupants to react and take control of the car if there is a failure. There is thus a need to consider whether changes in the way occupants use their time within a car will result in a shift to fully autonomous control even in the event of an accident.
The reduced risk of accidents through the use of fully autonomous cars could also result in changes in the law. For instance if it could be proved to be safe speed limits could be increased and traffic could move faster. Likewise if accidents are a very rare event in the future car manufacturers may well start to design out current safety features designed to minimise injury in an impact with a consequent reduction in the weight of the car and an improvement in efficiency.
A key question is whether fully autonomous cars will lead to a future of mobility solutions? If a car does not need a driver then there is also the option of the car operating by itself without any occupants. This facility could be further used to save time and be more efficient. A car could drop off its passengers and then go and park itself. It could also come and pick up passengers form work and home. At this point the need to have car parked at the office or at home is no longer necessary as long as it is scheduled to arrive at suitable times. This could significantly reduce congestion or allow the car to be shared with other users when not needed by the owner. The car could also go and pick up children from school so that parents do not have to leave work. The car could also take itself for maintenance and service. Here there could be potential benefits in fuel economy and emissions as many cars are operated with dirty air filters and incorrect tyre pressures that result in loss of efficiency.
In terms of logistics the future may bring autonomous deliveries to the door. The most likely scenario initially is that people would need to leave their houses and transfer goods to their house from the autonomous vehicle. However, people may well send their cars to pick up goods and elect to meet their shopping at appropriate places such as a car park or a place of work.
The removal of the need for a driver could have significant and profound negative impacts on society. There would be no need for taxi drivers (indeed many taxis are shared by drivers – as one driver rests another driver utilises the taxi) so removal of the need for a driver may allow an operator to actually replace two drivers with consequent savings of two salaries, that would quickly cover the cost of the autonomous taxi, and result in greater loss of employment. Likewise bus drivers would also face unemployment. Looking to the road freight industry the introduction of autonomous trucks and vans could result in massive unemployment across Europe.
So the implications of fully autonomous cars are wide ranging impacting on our way of life, how we use our time and our employment prospects for the future. A revolution is coming but are we ready for it?