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Inconvenient truths

Jo Baker, Technical principal

Over the last hundred years or so there have been many ‘next big thing’ innovations in transport – from jet packs to maglevs to hovercraft. But despite the promise of major disruption, things seem to return to the internal combustion engine, four seats and a steering wheel.

Once again we are told we are on the cusp of something big with mounting excitement over the impending arrival of autonomous vehicles, mobility as a service and electrification of the vehicle fleet.

That might or might not be where we are heading but we need to get sharper with our thinking if we are going to turn the rhetoric into reality. History has shown us that not all technological advances succeed.

It’s possible you’ll end up with an automated, electric, shared vehicle, but it might be only one or two of those three. There is a tendency to think of them as being essentially the same thing, and they are not.

Any of these three variables could develop totally independently of the other. You could, for instance, have shared, electric cars driven by humans and you could have privately owned, petrol powered, self-driving cars. Every combination of outcome is entirely plausible.

We need a grown up conversation about the future of mobility that gets beyond the crystal ball gazing and instead focuses the conversation on the factors that will determine whether or not we end up in a situation that is an improvement for society on where we are today.

We also need to think about the transition path and account for the fact that things might get worse before the potential benefits are realised. There will certainly be winners and losers along the way. Infrastructure providers face the prospect of losing established income from fuel tax and parking revenues, which raises questions over how future roads development and maintenance will be funded. The obvious big winners are technology providers and automotive manufacturers who have a vested interest in driving the potential disruption and selling their vehicles, technologies, gadgets and software off the back of it. As for road users, it is a common assumption that all will benefit, but that is by no means guaranteed.

The future of mobility needs to be approached with a questioning mind. More granular thinking is required.

Jo Baker

Technical principal

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