Let’s jump forward 10–20 years so we can accept that fully autonomous cars are starting to appear in most towns and cities.
Lots of other infrastructures have had to change to enable this revolution, many of which came at tremendous cost and largely borne by taxpayers, not car makers. Oh, you think a Billion dollar investment is big? Honestly, that’s nothing when you have to build a motorway.
Built infrastructure is expensive, and initially planned in a rarified ideal world of unlimited budgets and perfect traffic flows. Around London, as is now a fairly well-known alternative to hell on Earth, the M25 orbital motorway is one of the busiest pieces of tarmac in the world. Conceived decades before it was completed, it went over its original planned capacity within a year of completion.
Since then, additional lanes have been added (up to six lanes of crawling traffic at peak times), junctions upgraded, computer-controlled speed restrictions installed to ease the surge of traffic and most recently it has become a ‘smart motorway’ allowing the safety lane to be requisitioned for live traffic in times of peak demand.
The ‘smart motorway’ upgrade for a section of this road near my home, running for roughly 25 miles, has cost near enough to £100 million.
How is the cost justified, you might ask, even if you do have your journey shortened by 2 minutes per day…
Easy: political will. Governments have to be seen to do something to get elected, and when a road which is critical to national infrastructure (the large ones usually are) is not upgraded, the economy suffers.
Critical is a strong word, I hear you say, when we can find an alternate route…
You might know a back-road route but when the main highway is blocked your local area will descend into chaos, and journey times will double, treble, even. Small roads with lots of junctions don’t have the capacity to carry large trucks, large volumes of cars or maintain high speeds, so everything must slow down dramatically.
Deliveries from mail order outlets, people going to work, emergency services, supply chain shipments for manufacturers — all of it.
As individuals, we rarely see these impacts, because the delay only affects us to create a story of woe as our holiday is disrupted or we’re delayed for a meeting, but traffic delays are carefully studied on a mass scale, a privilege afforded to the best data scientists and economists who in turn inform transport planners, who are employed by governments, that are elected by you.
Why are some national governments so keen to embrace, fund and experiment with autonomous vehicles? At first glance, you might think it’s about updating their business eco-system, perhaps creating new jobs or preparing society for change? Sure, those things affect the economy, just as road traffic accidents also negatively impact most economies by about 4%. But it’s also about getting data on how the transport infrastructure, nationalised assets worth several percentage points of every country’s budget, will need to change.
If you’re cynical, you might simply see it as a wasteful investment of taxpayer money because autonomous cars ‘will never happen’ because you ‘enjoy driving too much’. You don’t enjoy it in traffic jams though, and the technology already exists in high end cars to alleviate that..
These delays have a financial impact that reduce national productivity. This is a figure that tells a government how efficient a country is, with thousands of data inputs, it allows for governments to make sweeping guesses about where to spend money that is being invested into large scale, long life projects which may well outlive the government and even the lives of the people working on it.
Take the Hoover Dam for example, a project which helped kick-start the American economy out of the Depression and is still generating billions in profit every year, 80 years after its creation.
Likewise, public transport doesn’t just ‘happen’. In growing and vibrant economies, timetables change to optimally utilise the available trains, the limited track infrastructure and react with some flexibility to the changing pattern of use. Some of those timetables align with other services, such a peak air or sea-port activity.
While the individuals working in government departments are often technical specialists with a life-long training, passion and experience for civil engineering, economic engagement and business development, they are directed by and responsible to elected officials, who are human beings, and are elected by you.
Irrespective of the arrival date of autonomous vehicles, whether they are public transport, shared vehicles or individually owned, their path, the legislation which enables them, the economy which empowers them, and the infrastructure they must use (from roads, to power, connectivity and even where they are allowed) is 100% in your control.
Use your voice, get involved and take a step of getting your local politicians informed about autonomous vehicles.