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Quite suddenly, this looks out of date.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.

84 thoughts on “The IT revolution comes to transport

  1. derrida derider :
    “Count on it, the powers that be will eventually have all vehicles centrally controlled. It’s a further move towards “that which is not compulsory is forbidden”.


    I wrote at #59, “And I think there is a tendency to be seduced by the exciting new technology and to consequently neglect social factors.”

    Almost every other commenter here discusses only the technical detail, without consideration of the social impacts of ever more pervasive interconnectivity, and the inescapable potential for surveillance, influence and ultimately, control.

  2. My god! Centrally controlled autonomous cars! Do you realize what this means? To control literally millions of vehicles centrally, Australia would actually have to have working, reliable, high speed internet!

    I am so stoked!

    NBN via a boot stomping on a human face forever!

  3. @Ron E Joggles

    I’m all for looking at the social factors, but I’m still at a loss to work out what your concern is. Is there anything that could be done with the (not currently feasible) idea of remotely controlling autonomous cars that isn’t already being done for commercial drivers, much more cheaply, with GPS tracking. Drivers can be ordered to follow travel plans and punished for deviations.

    Relative to either of these, I’m much more concerned at the likelihood that this is already happening to the general public, surreptitiously, using mobile phones as the tracking device.

    And, of course, it’s not as though driving has ever had an assumption of privacy – it’s an easily observable activity, undertaken in public.

  4. Cars won’t be centrally controlled, because as any 14 year old can tell you, lag gets you killed. And then after you’re killed you get a heap of American accented racist and sexist verbal abuse. I always assumed the verbal abusers were also 14, but as it turns out, they were apparently old enough to vote.

    Cars won’t be centrally controlled, but if the technology did work that way I would be fine with it as long as it saved lives.

    What would worry me is if the government started doing things that served no practical purpose but only had evil applications. For example, if they started building concentration camps in remote areas that Jews, Gypsies, or other groups that could be classified as “enemies of the state” or “un-Australian” could be imprisoned in without trial. If they blocked media access to these camps. If they built up a workforce of camp guards and administrators who could be relied upon to perform inhumane actions when told to by those in power. If they inflicted physical harm on children, pregnant women, the sick, the elderly and other groups that society normally regards as requiring special protection and got away with it.

    That’s what would get me worried.


  6. On the subject of:

    * what will vehicles be like once the design constraints imposed by the need for a human driver are no longer relevant;

    Well, the elimination of controls means there is space for an extra seat in the front. This means self driving taxis of similar interior size to current ones could seat 6 passengers instead of 4.

    Of course, self driving cars could be made narrower than current ones so more can fit side to side on the roads. Once human driving is eliminated permanent lanes won’t be necessary.

    Self driving cars will electric. Batteries can go in the floor to give a low center of gravity and an electric motor can go in each wheel. This gives a lot of freedom with what goes on top of the “skateboard”.

    There might be wide variation in car size. As most taxi trips consist of ferrying on passenger, perhaps the majority of vehicles will be single seat self driving taxis. Or maybe private citizens will feel the need to express themselves with giant land yachts. (Donald Trumps preserved head will have its own self-driving continental siege machine that goes by the name “Mark 4”.)

    One development we might see very soon is external airbags. Self driving cars would (hopefully) be able to deploy them just before impact.

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