It's 2020 and your car is driving YOU home

Sam Stephens | 30 Mar 2015 | Comments

Technology changes, but one thing that doesn’t is its ability to grab attention and inspire people to think differently. Whether it’s light bulbs, steam engines or planes, the possibility of something new is perhaps more exciting than the reality.

In this respect, driverless cars have made headlines over the last few months, with Google conducting trials in California, to more recently road based trials being conducted in the UK. Atkins is proud to be part of the early stages of development, playing a key role as part of the Venturer consortium conducting trials in the engineering and tech cluster of Bristol.

It is difficult to comprehend how such a simple innovation as the removal of a driver could have such profound consequences for our travel system. While several companies predict driverless technologies to be available around 2020 (Tesla, Google and Mercedes, for example) it is not a question of if, but when mass uptake will happen. A safe bet would be within a decade of introduction, say 2030, as is the case with most major technological developments. My hunch is that it will happen sooner than this, perhaps in half the time.

With disruptive technologies, it is very difficult to forecast where they’ll go by extrapolating current market trends. However, what is important to understand is how ideas and innovations grow and evolve into bigger ideas.

If we look back on historic technological developments, it is rare that one idea changes the world. Instead, revolutions arise from the combination of technologies. A good recent example is the smartphone: a decade ago they barely existed; I can still remember the first time I saw an iPhone early in 2008. If we look more closely, it is clear that the smartphone is not solely a mobile telephone. Developments in capacitive touchscreen displays, GPS, Bluetooth, digital cameras, MP3 players, lithium ion battery technology, mobile (3G) internet and the app-orientated operating system have fused together to create an incredibly powerful piece of technology in everyone’s pockets.

With this in mind, a similar story can be predicted in the personal transport sector: driverless cars are not the only technology that has the potential to disrupt. Smartphone based taxi hailing systems such as Uber, recent advances in battery technology, aluminium manufacturing techniques, electric vehicles, 4G mobile phone networks, semi-autonomous technologies already in cars, organic PV cells, renewable sources of electricity, mesh networks are a range of recent developments where we will see synergies between each and every technology; each aspect will support and reinforce its counterparts.

Similarly, if we add in commercial drivers such as the need to free up valuable real estate in our cities, reduce congestion in the face of rising demand, increase capacity without incurring high capital costs, reduce insurance costs, avoid Single Occupancy Vehicles, increase the utilisation of vehicles, reduce susceptibility to volatile oil prices and increase productivity while travelling, there will be a significant impetus behind a paradigm shift in transportation.

There will be arguments against this view, but typically they will be based on 20th Century values and opinions. How many people actually own a vehicle they would enjoy driving more than be driven in? Do you need to own a car when it is cheaper and just as convenient to Uber one? When the first person is killed in or by a driverless car, will people forget that thousands of people currently die on our roads each year? Will cars be any more susceptible to being hacked than our internet bank accounts?

When thinking about timescales for adoption, it is also important to change our frame of reference. Rather than viewing the car as a transportation device, we should view it as a communication and energy storage device, or perhaps a big mobile phone on wheels. With this also in mind, we should also consider the ‘time constant’ that dictates the rate of change in an industry. For example, with three generations of technology developed in 75 years, perhaps the time constant for the nuclear industry is a long 25 years. The automotive sector is quicker and more fluid, perhaps just under a decade is reasonable.

However, when dealing with computer based system, Moore’s law governs – a doubling in transistors per square inch every couple of years. Perhaps this natural pace of innovation and change has facilitated such rapid developments in the internet, computing, mobile phone and related technology sectors, which is now over spilling into transportation. We are witnessing the early stages of a collision of two worlds – digital and physical. The battle has commenced.

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