The US Federal Government has just recognised Google’s driverless car as a ‘legal driver.’

Amongst other things, this is momentous because it means that driverless cars are now considered legally adequate for the US roads.

If you plot recent advancements in autonomous vehicle technology and policy, it becomes obvious that in the very close future (I give it five years) our own roads in Australia will be populated with an increasing number of cars that can drive themselves. And rather than fall down the rabbit hole of all the legal and social issues that this raises, let’s do a little back-casting from a possible future scenario.

Imagine this nation-building opportunity:

  • Every vehicle using public streets in Australia is autonomous (i.e. it drives itself), including buses, light and heavy vehicles.
  • Every vehicle is owned by a public utility – we no longer own our own vehicles. To get from A to B, you simply app-summon the service and pay per distance.
  • Every vehicle is fuelled with renewable energy from a national 100 per cent clean energy grid. Vehicles would be able to recharge as needed via distributed wireless recharge networks.
  • Every vehicle is networked and they communicate with each other and with us.
  • These autonomous vehicles return themselves to their own hubs when not in use.

Before you get all riled up about the impacts on your personal ‘freedoms,’ think about the city-resilience benefits that would result from such a mega-project:

  • We’d free up around 30 per cent more land area in our cities and urban areas, which is roughly how much land we devote purely to vehicles (roads, car parks, traffic control and so on). In some highly car-centric cities, the figure is closer to 60 per cent. I can think of one Australian city that is close to this but there’s no way I’m saying it. With a hive-mind networked vehicle system, we wouldn’t need a six lane highway – it would be three at most. This would unlock swathes of land for public space, nature, and property development, enough to feed the pipeline for the next half century.
  • Real estate along main roads and highways would suddenly become desirable. With the disappearance of combustion engines, noisy acceleration and human-driver behaviour, coupled with the uprooting of superfluous highway lanes, our main roads and highways could become ribbons of parkland or even food production.
  • We’d no longer have to awkwardly ignore the fact that some 1,200 motorists and pedestrians die every year in Australia. I say ‘ignore’ because if 1,200 Australians died in one single event it would be world news, but it happens every year, year on year, and we seem to tolerate this loss as collateral damage, justified by the ‘freedoms’ of personal car ownership and travel.
  • Our cities would be de-cluttered, and it would take an extraordinary amount of effort (jobs) to achieve; no more traffic lights, control boxes, line markings, kerbs, parking signs, directional signage and the like. It all becomes unnecessary when autonomous vehicles take control. And no more parking inspectors.
  • We could trigger a renaissance in manufacturing in Australia. With an autonomous vehicle grid, cars are not going to crash into each other (Google’s cars have driven thousands of miles across the US so far without a scratch), so they no longer need to be heavily armed steel cages to carry us around. We’d start a ‘Factor Ten’ de-materialisation of vehicles such that we could build a new fleet of lightweight vehicles out of pretty much anything that is waterproof and strong enough to handle the G-forces of high speed travel – composites, plastics, timbers, carbon fibre and so on. It all becomes possible. This then allows electric car batteries to travel significantly further than they currently do.

It would be a costly mistake to continue to invest billions of dollars into traditional car-based infrastructure without at least considering this potential future, which for many of us is also a desirable one. It would by no means be easy – I’m conveniently not writing about the myriad of issues that such a project would trigger, not the least being job loss versus job creation, vested interests, politics, macro-economics and our perceptions of ‘personal freedom.’

But I’m for planet and people. I’m for preventing the shameful road fatalities in this country. I’m for de-carbonising our transport, re-connecting our cities and giving families more time together rather than sitting in traffic congestion.

It’s a classic ‘personal freedoms versus the greater good’ scenario.

Which future do you think we should be aiming for?

  • This is certainly a worthy vision and well worth thought.

    I think we have a tendency to overestimate the potential of autonomous vehicles in the short term but underestimating it in the long term.

    Would I give up my car? Not readily, but I would more readily give up the $1,000 plus I pay each year in rego and insurance!

  • I agree that it is a bright vision for the future. It seems like there are issues presented for those living in regional areas, or for those using cars for off road purposes such as agriculture and mining.
    There is also the issue of maintenance, we have recently seen Uber take a huge chunk out of traditional taxis because of peoples preferences. Graffiti of various forms is a constant issue on our public transport system, and the privacy of a personal 'carriage' is only likely to increase this kind of behaviour. So while it is a fantastic idea, bringing it to reality will not only require addressing technological problems, but logistical and social issues as well.

  • A very Utopian vision. I see the appeal. I have strong libertarian leanings and I would surrender my steering wheel if I could get the other people on the road to do the same. A set of rules by which the cars (or drivers) followed would make the experience of commuting far less stressful.

    From article(Google’s cars have driven thousands of miles across the US so far without a scratch) This does not appear to be true at all.
    From Google, "Over the 6 years since we started the project, we've been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident."
    You might want to re-write that statement to reflect that the cars have not caused a single scratch.

    I have strong libertarian leanings and I would surrender my steering wheel if I could get the other people on the road to do the same. A set of rules by which the cars (or drivers) followed would make the experience of commuting far less stressful.

  • Thanks for an awesome article Digby!

    I actually think this is one of the main reasons why the oil is being pumped at a record pace and the price has dropped so dramatically, the writing is definitely on the wall for fossil fuels.


  • Great 'backcast'. The opportunity is even greater. Instead of 'making more cars with more features to make more profit', the facility makes its money out of 'use', not sale. It means the facilites that provide the cars want to make the least number of cars with the least features and the longest life that are cheap and easy to maintain and refurbish and more cost effective to recycle than throw away when finally at the end of their useful life.

    It means creating automated facilities than can assemble, clean, maintain, refurbish and re-cycle. These facilites do not have to be centralised. Using automated 'robot and 3D printing' cells, the facilities can be distributed around the city, with material and parts automatically flowing to each 'cell' as required.

    In this way we move to a truly 'circular economy', where 'use' rather than 'ownership' is the key. Why would I want to pay for a single type of vehicle when I can have one that suits my specifc needs at a specific time and place (single person town trip, people mover to travel with friends, ute for rubbish, sports car for a hot date, etc. The only issue will be carting around 'my stuff'. So for tradies, they may want a dedicated vehicle. The answer may be to make transportable modules that carry your stuff and attach to the car, while it may also be possible to use the same chassis with a different pod… one to carry passengers by day and another to carry freight at night.

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