The Blog

What Will Driverless Cars Do to Our Society?

Whilst Volvo envisions us all owning our own car, just like we do now, Google and other companies envision using driverless vehicles as a form of public transport, using Uber-like technology to hail a vehicle directly to our location.

Google is leading, Tesla is making waves, the UK is trialling them, and Volvo have announced plans to introduce them by 2017. They're coming, and soon - driverless cars.

With their impending arrival comes a wave of excitement - those who drive to work will be able to watch videos, read, or catch up on emails instead of concentrating on driving. Parents will no longer have to endure the school run or shuttle kids to swimming, judo or friends. No more being the designated driver on a night out. Reduced traffic, faster travel, no more planning out journeys, and no more worrying about parking or getting lost!

As well as these improvements to our everyday lives, it is expected to boost our economy. Britain will 'benefit from what is expected to be a £900 billion industry by 2025', according to Business Secretary Vince Cable.

It's accepted amongst many sociologists and economists that technological innovation is often the most impactful catalyst for societal change.

The invention of the telegraph in the late 19th century allowed communication across long distances. Soon after, the mass production of automobiles freed workers from the need to live near rail lines, stations, or city centres; a big change.

South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang claims the invention of washing machines and other household appliances, helped abolish professions such as domestic service, revolutionising the structure of society, as the workforce was effectively doubled.

The widespread consumption of TV which came about in the 50s and 60s propelled consumerism to unimaginable levels, and more recently, smartphones have fundamentally changed the way we communicate, do business, journalism and entertainment.

And now come the driverless cars. Whilst Volvo envisions us all owning our own car, just like we do now, Google and other companies envision using driverless vehicles as a form of public transport, using Uber-like technology to hail a vehicle directly to our location.

Of course, there are obvious downsides. The first fear is safety. Volvo envisions making cars death and serious-injury free by 2020. Whilst it's clearly relatively straightforward for cars going in the same direction on broad highways to be driverless (we already have trains like this on the DLR in London), to have driverless cars negotiating the twisted medieval streets (and twisted medieval Clarkson type drivers) found in many towns, is a much more difficult technical problem, and this transition could be chaotic.

Other fears include further enabling the Big Brother surveillance society in which we now live. If people can already be tracked to the half-metre by their smart phones, it's going to be even harder to arrange clandestine meetings currently available to car owners.

Technical and cultural issues aside however, perhaps a more sinister issue is whether unemployment will rocket to unprecedented levels.

According to official UK Gov stats, in March 2013 there were 297,000 taxi/PHV driver licenses held in England and Wales. On top of this, there must be hundreds of thousands of delivery drivers, bus drivers, insurance workers, parts/repair shop workers and other auto jobs, most of which potentially face extinction with the introduction of driverless cars. Is there really going to be enough jobs created by this evolving industry to counter these?

There will of course be some new jobs - producing vehicles (though robotic production lines will no doubt take care of most of these), maintaining the vehicles, and perhaps other specialised technical jobs. Business secretary Vince Cable said the current trials of driverless cars in London, backed by £19m worth of funding from the government, would keep the UK at the cutting edge of automotive technology and should bring more highly-skilled jobs to the UK. Sounds good, but what about the millions of folk who aren't 'highly-skilled' who are going to be back on the job market should all auto-related jobs cease to exist?

Back when washing machines opened up a massive new (mostly female) workforce, the then newly industrialised markets were crying out for cheap labour. However, that simply isn't the case any more. The world is now more advanced and globalised - machines carry out tasks previously done by humans, and factories have gone elsewhere, hungry for ever-cheaper labour. We now live in a post-industrial service society, and there is little room for those without highly specialised, high level skills.

It goes without saying that the introduction of driverless cars will spur further massive societal change, and it's interesting to guess what this may be.

Many high profile economists are advocating the introductions of a Citizen's Income - where everyone is given enough money to live a basic but comfortable life, even if not in work. Advocates claim that there simply are not enough jobs to go around anymore.

It will be intriguing to hear which other predictions and proposed solutions are on the horizon.