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A man in an autonomous driving test vehicle Liverpool St Station during rush hour

Shared, electric, autonomous? Jo Baker

Mobility – the movement of people and goods – is changing profoundly. But we are typically given a very positive, air-brushed version of how this is going to play out and of the benefits both to drivers and society in general.

It’s generally accepted that road vehicles are becoming more connected and might one day be totally autonomous and self-driving. Private vehicle ownership might be replaced by shared ownership through the concept of mobility as a service (MaaS). And we are moving away from the internal combustion engine towards cleaner and quieter electric vehicles.

We are sold the promise of safer and easier mobility, including new freedoms for the elderly and disabled, less congested roads and more reliable journeys.

Much of the rhetoric originates from the technology sector and there is a risk that if these voices govern the direction of progress, the societal benefits could be lost.

Not all roses

You don’t, for instance, often hear the counter view that if travel becomes easier and more affordable, it could not only increase the vehicle miles travelled but also undermine the viability of public transport services leading to an increase in congestion, carbon emissions and air pollution. Equally you don’t often hear how autonomous vehicles and shared ownership models might impact negatively on the infrastructure asset owners and their ability to maintain the national and local roads networks.

A recent report from the UK House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee called for Government to bring forward a wider transport strategy that places the development of connected and autonomous vehicles in the context of wider policy goals, such as increased use of public transport and the reduction of congestion and pollution.

There needs to be reasoned and reasonable debate in this direction, with ‘enabling thinking’ to ensure the societal benefits on offer are realised and the potential pitfalls avoided.

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