Driverless Vehicles: More than a Technology Issue

Driverless cars are getting closer to reality. The technology exists today and has been successfully tested on roads. Governments are discussing legislation to allow driverless cars on roads in many countries. Two US states, Nevada and California, have passed legislation to allow driverless vehicles. Much of the discussion is about the technology and the benefits it can provide: better traffic flow, more cars on the road, and safer driving with fewer accidents. But what about the non-technology issues: the economic, social and legal issues surrounding this technology?

What is changing?

Driverless cars may soon be an option available to drivers.  This has the potential to dramatically alter transportation. (See previous Trend Alert – Reducing Congestion.)  The legislation governing cars: ownership, registration, licensing is well established in most countries.  Driver’s licensing has been a growing issue in many countries:  younger people increasingly do not get a driver’s license or pursue car ownership and as more of the population ages, discussion has focused on maximum driving ages or tests to ensure the elderly can still operate a vehicle safely.  Driverless vehicles may change both of these situations.  Do you need a driver’s license to operate a driverless vehicle?  Or can small children now take themselves to school?  Does a human even need to be in the car?  Can you go to work, then send the vehicle back to the house to take the kids to school?

Why is this important?

Driverless vehicles create economic issues as well.  Will automation increase or decrease car ownership?  Car manufacturers and governments are very interested in this answer.  In the example above, it may enable a household to manage with only one car. Parking could be totally different – sending the car to park itself, or even return to the house for parking.  It might enable you to never pay for parking at a meter again.  Governments may need to examine their revenue sources related to private transport; licensing, parking, car registration and insurance requirements.

There is a large industry and a large number of jobs related to driving: cabs, shuttle services, and trucking are but a few.  These jobs have been resistant to downsizing and off-shoring due to the need of humans to conduct these positions.  They are often roles low skilled workers can perform.  Driverless vehicles may enable these positions to be eliminated.

The computer in a driverless vehicle will know everywhere the vehicle goes.  Ownership and access to this information is an issue.  Insurance companies, parents, spouses, employers, law enforcement all could find numerous uses for this information.  These issues are still being sorted with regards to GPS data, mobile phone data, and electronic tolling, and these technologies have been available for years.

And what about those people who just enjoy driving.  The freedom to get in the car and drive to a destination.  Will these people be penalised?  If you self-drive will insurance and other fees be higher?  How will the roads cope with both driverless and self drive vehicles?

There is the potential for an economic divide as well.  If access to the technology is expensive many people that could benefit from the use of the technology, including the elderly and handicapped, may be excluded from access.  This creates issues of social inequality.

Driving is an emotional issue.  While technology may enable vehicles to be driverless there are a number of other issues- emotional, social, economic and legal that arise.  These issues create the larger challenges.  There are many examples where technology is introduced and society struggles to deal with the broader issues and overall impact.  Technology may enable driverless vehicles but the social, legal and economic issues will impact its adoption.

By Elizabeth Rudd

About the author

Elizabeth has a strong background assisting clients to navigate the often conflicting signals in their external environments and find innovative opportunities . As a strategic foresight consultant at FutureNous she has assisted organisation to explore the future to find new products, alter their business model, find expansion opportunities and build their resilience. Her experience spans many industries including technology, mining, utilities, healthcare, non-profits, government, media and telecommunications, and many others. Elizabeth also works with Shaping Tomorrow writing Trend Alerts and more in-depth reports exploring the impact of long term (macro) trends.