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Driverless cars: benefit to humanity or road to an Orwellian dystopia?

Understanding where driverless cars are taking us – in terms of physical safety, governance models and unintended consequences – is still in its infancy. In this article Tomorrowland 2018 speaker David Wilson, a planning professional part-way through a PhD doctoral thesis on the topic, provides a helicopter view of what’s coming.

Dislodging our substantial transport systems by forceful technological change may benefit some and alienate others.

The fail fast change-makers in Silicon Valley, best known as the FAANG group (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), are incubating connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), operating global social media networks and ride sharing apps, disrupting global carmakers and creating a cauldron of conflict.

The DNA of Silicon Valley companies is to think big.

FAANG + BAT (Chinese companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) are becoming ever more audacious in patenting devices to listen for mood shifts and emotions in human voices.

They have created moonshot labs perfecting persuasive messages to collect more data from unsuspecting consumers to launch technologies for tomorrowland.

Big size can be a big problem

The size of the tech giants is becoming a big issue. They have massive power to influence and manipulate billions of people with Facebook serving 2.23 billion people; and the world wide web serving about four billion people – more than half the world’s population.

However, the tech giants are not invulnerable; recently they have been stumbling due to a consumer backlash about misuse of data with shares plummeting and their user bases shrinking. The speed and disruption with which tech giants have grown is their greatest vulnerability. In sharp contrast to the desire for rapid change there has been a slow incremental introduction of driver assistance systems utilising new technologies that are gradually being incorporated into current vehicles that have decades to become commercially available.

Market deployment of Driver Assistance Systems. Source: Litman (2018)

NameDeployment cycleTypical Cost PremiumMarket Saturation Share
Air Bags25 years (1973-98)A few hundred dollars100%, due to federal mandate
Automatic transmission50 years (1940s-90s) $1500 90% US, 50% worldwide
Navigation systems30+years (1985-2015)+$500 and rapidly decliningUncertain, probably over 80%
Optional GPS services15 years$250 annual fee2-5%
Hybrid Vehicles25+ years (1990-2015+)$5000Uncertain, Currently about 4%

The fundamental instability of the tech giants and the fleeting affections of consumers for the latest app raise issues about the long-term development cycles necessary as highlighted in the previous table to drive dynamic digital innovations in software, hardware and communications necessary to achieve radical change from manual to automated vehicles.

Vehicle design changes

Vehicle design changes are structured around a five stage framework of automation advancing from Level 0 – manual driving – to Levels 1 and 2, which will require incremental changes in mechanical driving systems.

Radical transformational changes at Levels 3 and 4 will initiate automated driving systems, and Level 5 – full automation– will require integration of automated operating systems for fully robotic driverless vehicles.

Currently the car industry is shaped like a pyramid with the global carmakers at the top supporting several tiers of suppliers, including raw materials and components, IT systems and production partners.

In the future, as the values of vehicle components change, the shape of the pyramid structure will change to a hub and spoke integrated network with global carmakers still at the centre but increasingly surrounded by equally powerful interconnected hardware and software companies and suppliers including tech giants, Google, Microsoft and Siemens, which are flattening and broadening supply chains with additional specialists.

The value of the vehicle components are changing.

Current vehicles are 90 per cent hardware and 10 per cent software. The future transition to CAVs will change the values of car components to 40 per cent hardware and 40 per cent software supported by 20 per cent content providers supplying apps that link the hardware and software.

The balance is changing with high-tech companies such the FAANG + BAT dominating, supplying the greater value through leading-edge software, hardware and operating systems.

The latest artificialintelligence reports on the operating systems of autonomous vehicles highlight that “sensing will be easy” and “perception difficult”.

The first stage of the process collects the data, the second stage develops or fuses the data into an environmental picture, and the third stage makes autonomous choices to proceed.

What’s needed is responsive smart governance

Many countries are closely watching the planning of autonomous citywide networks that will be crucial in developing “fit for purpose” revised road rules and mobility networks with responsive infrastructure required for automated vehicles.

Clearly there is a revolution in mobility that will require responsive smart governance and robotic citywide networks as opposed to the limited small-scale tests and trials currently being carried out under protected test-bed conditions.

The complexity of managing the transition of the five levels of transport automation will need robust government management frameworks. There is a danger of exploring these issues under a transport portfolio alone as there is a risk of missing the broader social macroeconomic costs that will profoundly impact on financial markets, investment, inflation, unemployment, job losses and expansion and the need for improved road safety.

Australia appears to be behind other countries in developing regulatory legal frameworks for CAVs. Europe, the UK, Germany, US, China and Japan are setting the pace.

Unless regulatory frameworks are put in place in Australia, uncertainty will stifle innovation and act as a disincentive to the introduction of CAVs.

In Barry Bozeman’s 2007 book Public Values and Public Interest, the idea of governance capturing public value has been defined as:

“The rights, benefits and prerogatives to which citizens should (and should not) be entitled; the obligations of citizens to society, the state and one another; the principles on which governments and policies should be based.”

The challenge for government agencies will be to harness the energy of the high-tech developers and carmakers to channel it into adding “public value”. There is a need to examine alternative governance frameworks that are already in place to guide the evolving transition to CAVs. The Germans already have a highway code for driverless cars that signposts the issues regulators need to address here and now.

There are multiple transition approaches being developed by leading transport agencies in the US, China and Europe who have established government/industry task forces to coordinate strategic mobility plans to provide a regulated pathway for CAVs to be developed.

The powers and wealth of the tech behemoths and the entrenched global carmakers are accelerating, moving in ways that make it hard to predict who will benefit – possibly enormously – from the development of CAVs. Two options are emerging – one that will provide positive benefits and one that will produce negative outcomes.

The first option with integrated CAVs and government regulation is likely to result in:

Outcomes of CAV expansion with integrated government planning

Greater convergence and integration of public and private transport networks
Disruption of Australian government institutional frameworks in order to achieve greater efficiencies in integrating and managing transport systems.
Multiple mobility options to provide seamless integration of shared public and active transport.
Lower transport costs and equitable health, social, environmental and economic outcomes
Regulation of transport network use through road pricing, in vehicle cost metering and peak period congestion charging resulting in reductions in congestion levels
Management of assets responsive to transitioning to CAVs and mixed use transport mode use
Spatial planning and land use policies that build on the benefits of automated vehicles
Potential improvements in human safety and reduction in injuries and fatal accidents

The second option – expanding global markets for CAVs without government regulation – is likely to produce negative results:

Outcomes of CAV expansion without government regulations

Non-aligned goals, objectives and conflicts between government regulators and CAVs
Entanglement instead of integration between traditional car manufacturers and high tech CAV providers
Infrastructure Australia Future Cities Report Feb 2018 indicates congestion will increase under all scenarios adding new roads will not be able to accommodate future vehicle demands and unregulated CAV expansion. It predicts that due to under investment in public transport and lack of investment in major road and public transport – traffic volumes could increase by 40% by 2031 in Sydney and Melbourne.
The major global vehicle manufactures and global high tech companies who are the largest investors in CAVs will continue to be the major influence on future expansion of CAVs onto already congested city transport networks.
The uptake of CAVs will be dependent on traditional motor vehicle fleets, company sales, pricing affordability and changes in public transport, freight and trucking operations and management by government regulators.
Increasing road infrastructure costs, reduced revenue from vehicle licensing and public transport.

The question is: will the loss of our familiar manual cars be a benefit for humanity, or are we heading towards an Orwellian future where a concentration of high-tech global “fangs” manipulate and control our lives, minimising government regulators to toothless tigers?

As George Orwell warned:“No advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimetre nearer.”

David Wilson is undertaking a part time PhD doctoral thesis with the University of Technology Sydney on the future development of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. He has been working with Transport for NSW for the past four years. He will speak at The Fifth Estate’s Tomorrowland 2018 event on 6 September.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Driverless cars: benefit to humanity or road to an Orwellian dystopia?”

  • Geo says:

    Australia is actually developing national end-to-end regulation for AVs to operate in Australia by 2020. This is work currently being developed by the National Transport Commission, which you can view on their website. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Australian Government hasn’t done any work with the United Nations on developing global standards on AVs. Sometimes it be better to be the follower than the leader in such fields.

    Perhaps you could prosecute the lack of any ethics code being developed in Australia? This is an issue that is more real for the community and wil help to raise the profile for AVs as it’s slowly deployed over the medium to long term.

  • Phil Wilkinson says:

    Thank you for sharing this.
    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about active transport and the benefits it brings. One area that is a real benefit of walking, cycling and public transport is human connection. We are social beings and need to feel part of our local surrounds.
    One thing that is a barrier to active transport is the safety issue and sheer number of cars on the road.
    I realize that elec autonomous vehicles are promoted to be safer, but I keep asking myself how do we reduce cars on the road. Not just how do we make cars more efficient.
    I’ve noticed over the years that car windows are getting. Darker and darker – particularly in the back seats. This means even less “visual connection” to other people.
    I’ve seen some presentations on level 5 autonomous driverless vehicles too. Taxis without drivers, delivery services without people.
    I catch a country train to work everyday. We have a real live conductor, with a smile and is helpful. It helps create a small community of travellers by having someone familiar you see everyday. When I travel on the metro in Melbourne – it strikes me how impersonal and uncomfortable and at times unsafe it feels – physically and psychologically.

    The automation of our vehicles feels like more things to add to the decay to our social fabric, but I’d like to understand other points of view
    I’m really keen to understand what social impact studies have been undertaken in all of this to help my understanding.

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