News from the front desk: Issue 367 – On riding AVs into the unknown before they drive us
30 November 2017
So autonomous vehicles or AV will change our landscape. That seems to be the growing consensus and a growing topic of conversation. But let your imagination wander just a tad further than the peg staking it to a comfortable safe circumference and see what happens next.
What comes to mind is that AVs might also change us.
We humans are mad for mobility; that’s been clear from our first days hunting on the savannah. We like home but we’re also a roving lot, travelling in ever greater numbers to explore, experience (and sometimes to exploit). Often it’s in ways that leave our debris trailing behind us on land and skies. But let’s face it, travel is the ultimate physical freedom.
We’ve embraced with gusto each new piece of technology that’s come along to provide us with faster, better ways to travel.
We’ve gone from horse and cart to smart metal machines, added fins and bright lights, mag wheels and pop tops. We can spend a fortune on any number of options in cars that we’ve decided can define us, and signal to the crowd who we are and what values we ride by.
Remember former “un-dear” leader PM Tony Abbott motioning that our cars are a kind of castles on wheels, and woe betide anyone who wanted to mess with that sense of entitlement. Or words to that effect.
But what we are in for with AV may well take this to another level.
We started riffing a bit on AVs in the office this morning after Cameron filed his interview with Brian Haratsis about his new book on AVs, Autropolis: The Diverse Mobility Revolution.
Haratsis, well known for his role as executive chairman of property planning and economic consultancy MacroPlan Dimasi, takes us through some of the big changes that could come.
More congestion is one clear potential outcome, and also greater mobility so that we may be able to live in places that are more distant – and hopefully more affordable – because the cosy AV can take us to the office while we get some work done on the way.
Some cars might be fitted out as lounges, blocking out the outdoors and replacing them with a big screen for movies or news or videos, or maybe there will be multiple seats for a mini party.
But what else will we be able to do?
What about catching up on some sleep? Of course cars already have reclining seats, but why not provide a proper bed?
And, if so, then maybe we could do an overnight trip to Melbourne in comfort, just like a first-class airline limo to London. Some service provider or other (maybe Airbnb on wheels) will change the sheets and make things ship shape. And if it’s such a long trip, maybe there can be a bathroom on board as well, so we can freshen up.
We love moving around so much we might give up our permanent homes for much of the time and live most of our lives in the car. Or we might send the car to pick up the milk while we stay home.
In fact, these AVs might become so popular they might outnumber houses.
You can see the business opportunities … someone or other will pick up the money-making potential. And we don’t know where it will stop, if at all. Nor where the dream turns into a nightmare.
It’s an interesting question.
At the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Low Carbon Living national forum in Melbourne last week, organised by the Swinburne Node, where The Fifth Estate was invited to sit on a panel about technology and media, it was revealing how quickly and enthusiastically question time turned to AVs. All focused on panel member Professor Hussein Dia from Swinburne’s Smart Cities Research Institute whose work is focused on the topic.
One thing Dia made clear is that if we don’t seize control of the agenda, private companies will.
Under the banner of meeting “consumer demand”, which translates to whatever the marketing people think is easier to push, it will be private companies calling the shots. On ethics they already have. Mercedes, we heard from Dia, has answered the dreadful question of who the AV will choose to endanger and who it will protect in the case of a potential collision. It will protect the occupant, of course, because otherwise no one would buy the car or step inside one.
When you think about it, most people in charge of a car will instinctively try to save themselves. However, the point is, it’s the private sector (that is, business) that has snatched the agenda and will continue to control it unless we the people, we humans, take control of the programming.
These are all massive questions, with so many options opening up, many of which we cannot yet imagine. Could be just the thing for the new CRC to take up when its current remit expires in 18 months’ time.
Chief executive Deo Prasad wasn’t averse to the idea. On Thursday he said exploration of new topics was well under way and could easily include AVs (and probably needs to) as part of the broader scope of smart, resilient cities, new materials, and how these could all integrate into industry and economic growth.
He said the NSW government had already asked the CRC to explore AVs as part of a broader set of transport options that included how docking electric cars into houses could work at a broader scale.
In the Asia Pacific the shift in focus to big cities, and how technology can be integrated, is already well under way, Prasad said.