Autonomous cars greatest change to society in a century

November 08, 2016

Self-driving cars could 'change society more than any technology has over the past century’, Canada’s national newspaper claims.  

The Globe and Mail report says that: ‘Roads will be safer, we’ll have more free time, cities will be reshaped and traffic may become a thing of the past.  

However, the Financial Times argues that driverless cars pose a threat to the growth of cycling in cities. Andrew Gilligan, who championed cycling under former London Mayor Boris Johnson, said: ‘Even now, taking out one of four [vehicle] lanes on Victoria Embankment [to be turned into a cycle lane] was treated as if the world had fallen in. Nigel Lawson, former chancellor of the exchequer suggested in a speech that this was the most damaging thing to happen to London since the Blitz.’  

Gilligan highlights the issue with how autonomous cars can have a future in cities such as London where roads are being increasingly curtailed to provide more space for cycling.  

With the health benefits of cycling, and plans to pedestrianise key city boulevards such as London’s Oxford Street, the future of autonomous cars as a central mode of transport in cities is far less certain.  

Moreover, with the mass unemployment of drivers that autonomous cars is likely to create, the ensuing scale of backlash, as the Guardian predicts, seems more like a medium-term dystopia. This could provoke a miners’ strike-style class warfare resisting each stage of its introduction for years.  

Nevertheless, the promises of autonomous cars – from automatic car sharing eradicating the need for parking to the lack of any need for traffic lights – present opportunities that could greatly improve the urban landscape into a more pedestrian-friendly environment.  

Anthony Foxx, US secretary of transportation, told The Verge: ‘By 2021, we will see autonomous vehicles in operation across the country in ways that we [only] imagine today […] Families will be able to walk out of their homes and call a vehicle, and that vehicle will take them to work or to school. [...] My daughter, who will be 16 in 2021, won’t have her driver’s licence. She will be using a service.  

However, the promised safety improvements of autonomous cars also have their downsides, as highlighted by the MIT Technology Review, who point out the potential for humans to ‘bully’ mild-mannered autonomous cars, taking advantage of the fact that they will be so risk-averse that humans will game their behaviour.

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March 31, 2017

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