Predicting the impact of new technology is a very inexact science. Technological change proceeds by fits and starts and the outcomes are rarely what its authors expect – who for example, could have predicted the rise and swift demise of the fax machine, or the marriage of phones and cameras, or that an app built on couch surfing could upend the hotel industry?
Despite this we still need to at least try to ask the right questions if we want to at least attempt to influence the direction of change. The seemingly unstoppable rise of autonomous vehicles (AVs) provides a potent example. There is an increasing realisation that AVs are likely to become a reality, though there is still considerable debate on how, when, and how quickly this will occur. What is certain however is that the impact of AVs will be profound. The advent of their predecessor provides abundant evidence for the impact of new mobility technologies; every aspect of human life over the last century or so, especially for people living in cities, has been substantially affected by cars.
While the impact of AVs will be different, our experience with cars gives us some clues regarding the potential spread and scale of disruption. Three major reports released in the past 12 months have looked at these issues from different perspectives. The first, Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030 by James Arbib & Tony Seba from the think tank Rethinkx, is full of dramatic predictions regarding the potential for AVs to be universally adopted within the next decade, and the consequent social changes.