Are driverless vehicles the new Russian dolls?

There is a lot of conversation (which some may see as hype) around how the technological transition that we think is within our grasp involving driverless vehicles will in some way solve a significant portion of our urban transportation challenges.

But will it? 

A counter perspective in this debate is that driverless vehicles may be a solution looking for a problem and we might be pointing them at the wrong problem, or at an over simplified description of the problem.

The more I think about driverless vehicles the more I realise just how complex the topic is and how it represents one of those ‘wicked’ scenarios that seem to be unfolding in front of the human race in a whole host of areas.

Take another wicked problem – the energy crisis … it’s a much more complicated set of systemic issues that we are dealing with than it might at first appear, so while adding to the storage capacity of the Snowy is one solution, it may not be the solution we should go for. We lack a coherent plan for how we provide for energy needs, how we manage demand and what demand we are actually managing for (and should meeting all of that demand be a high priority?) This then links across to the transport conversation: our transport modes rely on energy, driverless vehicles will be electric, so where will this electricity come from? The more you start to dig into some of these issues, one realises that the Russian doll has many, many layers and this is indeed a ‘wicked’ problem.

For many of these ‘wicked’ scenarios, it appears the traditional, technological solutions may not be adequate because they are ‘if you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail’ solutions, which in many cases won’t work because the problem might be much bigger than that. In the case of driverless vehicles, to consider a much simplified un-layering of the problem, maybe the answer might be that we don’t need to travel at all, not ‘that the way you travel might be different’.

Technology and people

When we start to think about what makes driverless vehicles possible, technology is key, but so are people. In the autonomous vehicle discussion there are very rich conversations occurring, many, many reports being produced and research being commissioned, but a lot of them still focus mostly on the technological aspects of this issue. The behavioural and societal issues aren’t getting the air time they should get. This is partly because it’s relatively easy for ‘techno’ people to show they have answers to technical problems. I think it is a lot harder for people to show they have answers to some of the broader, more far reaching social issues. It is definitely a challenge to answer questions such as ‘will driverless vehicles lead to a healthier or less healthy population?’ or ‘what impact will driverless vehicles have on driving related jobs, or health-care professionals, insurance agents and even lawyers whose work is connected to the driving economy?’ and so on.

The very thorny, or challenging, issue we must address is whether we really understand the social and societal implications of some of these solutions? We need to be thinking about the social and behavioural implications of moving down this track and whether adoption of driverless vehicles will in fact solve real issues, make them worse, or even create new issues which haven’t existed before.

It could be that if we solve the technical problems, we may have a solution that society says they don’t actually want. Will driverless vehicles force many people out of work – taxi, freight and so on? Is that the outcome we seek?

“Ultimately, we should not view vehicle automation through rose-colored glasses. The ultimate effect of automation on travel and energy demand may be positive or negative, and we cannot yet say which. Clear-headed analysis, evaluation, and adaptive policymaking provide the greatest chance of realizing the full benefits of automation and minimizing the costs”  – Wadud et al. (2016) ‘Help or hindrance? The travel, energy and carbon impacts of highly automated vehicles. Transportation Research Part A, Vol. 86, pp. 1-18’

Taking stock

In Australia there has been a lot of activity occurring in the driverless vehicle space. This article gives an excellent snapshot of what has been happening to make driverless vehicles a reality on Australian roads. But while these are all positive steps toward making driverless vehicles mainstream, each example listed focusses on the technology aspect (e.g. automated vehicle trials, testing of technology and vehicles, infrastructure) … but where are the people? 

While focus on impacts on the people are few and far between, we are seeing some positive steps.

The Federal Government Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources are currently conducting an inquiry into the social issues relating to land-based driverless vehicles in Australia. This is one piece of activity which gives me some degree of confidence that our decision makers and planners aren’t solely focussing on the technology aspect of the driverless vehicle debate.

I await with interest the outcomes there (and will surely write about them), but in principle it shows some leaders ARE starting to think about the people and what social impact driverless vehicle technology could have. This is an excellent step in the right direction.

Before we progress at full steam ahead and potentially implement something ‘just because we can / just because we have the technology’, we need to understand that this Russian doll has many layers. We shouldn’t get carried away by the purely technological solution, because there are many hidden complexities we need to work our way through.

It’s an increasingly complex world and we should ensure that people are not exposed to more challenges because of over enthusiasm about technology which may not make living better or less complicated.