The IT revolution comes to transport
One of the striking features of technological progress over the past fifty years or so has been that of incredibly rapid progress in information and communications technology, combined with near-stasis in most other sectors. Here’s what I wrote on the topic in 2003, and could have reposted, essentially unchanged, a decade later
On most of the obvious measures, technological progress in transport stopped sometime in the late 1960s and, at the frontiers, we are now seeing retrogression.
In 1970, we had regular visits to the moon, and supersonic passenger flight via Concorde was on the way. Now we have neither. Even the space shuttle, designed as a low-cost “space truck” to replace the expensive moon program, is now headed for oblivion, with no obvious replacement.
At a more prosaic level, the 747 jumbo jet, introduced in the late 1960s, is still the workhorse of passenger air transport. Boeing’s attempts at producing a new generation of passenger planes have failed, and the likely replacement for the jumbo jet is the Airbus A380 – essentially just a double-decker jumbo. In all probability, this will be the standard for the next thirty or even fifty years. Of course we don’t have flying cars, or even personal helicopters, as most projections from 50 years ago supposed.
Quite suddenly, this looks out of date. Electric cars, drones and, most significantly, self-driving vehicles have been transformed from curiosities (or, in the case of drones, military hardware with no apparent positive value to humanity) to the likely transport technologies of the near future.
There have been quite a few thinkpieces about these topics, particularly self-driving vehicles, but nothing I’ve seen has been really satisfactory to me. The central focus has been on the challenge of introducing imperfect self-driving vehicles to our current road network. But if we’ve learned anything from the last fifty years (from electronic watches to desktop publishing to digital cameras) it’s that, whatever the initial limitations, a technology that’s been digitised will inevitably improve to the point where it outperforms the analog competition on just about every dimension.
So, it’s safe to predict that, quite soon, self-driving vehicles will be safer and more reliable than all but the best human drivers, and cheaper than vehicles designed for human control. That raises some obvious questions
* what will vehicles be like once the design constraints imposed by the need for a human driver are no longer relevant;
and, more importantly,
* if unskilled or careless human drivers are more dangerous to fellow road users and pedestrians than self-driving vehicles, should they be allowed to drive at all?
To spell out the second point a bit further, if self-driving vehicles are readily available and affordable (and particularly if self-driving technology can be retrofitted to existing vehicles), there’s no argument from the necessity of personal mobility to give speeders and drunk drivers multiple chances to kill other road users. The fact that these people might enjoy driving themselves is scarcely relevant. In fact, to the extent that enjoyable driving is dangerous driving (and, in my limited experience, it mostly is), it’s an argument against allowing it.
Just writing this, I can imagine the ferocity of the responses. I suspect that policies on self-driving cars will turn out to be a long-running front in the endless culture wars in which we seem to be permanently enmeshed.
There’s a lot more to think about here, but that’s enough to be going on with.