Report envisions possible paths transportation technologies may take us in next 20 years

A version of this post originally appeared on contributor Hannah Budnitz’s blog,

As in the United States, how people will get around Great Britain in the near future is especially unclear given a number of emerging technologies. A recent report from RAND explored this uncertainty, offering three alternative visions of the future of mobility, which are intended to cover the spectrum of probability, rather than a forecast of reality. The aim of the project, according to one of the report’s authors, was to review emerging technologies that influence transport efficiencies, and envision the multiple potential futures that might encompass the actual future.

Why? The one certainty in this crystal ball-gazing is that technologies affecting transport, which have not changed substantially for decades, are changing now and will change not only how we travel, but also our lifestyles, even our societies. So we need to have vision if we are to be ready for it.

It is not only the giants of the tech world that realize this. Did you see Ford’s Superbowl ad? The car company is promoting a vision of mobility for the future where it would be selling a lot more than just cars. Will it be selling “mobility as a service?” Car manufacturers have to offer different models of ownership, operation, and efficiency if they are to stay in the transport game in the future.

Transport planners have to change their tactics too. Cost-benefit analyses for investment in infrastructure currently calculate 60 years into the future – an unhelpful timescale when technology is changing so quickly that predicting possibilities for even 2035 is challenging. Also, transport appraisal has never been much good at predicting social impacts, but if we don’t want the RAND report’s dystopian vision of a “Digital Divide” – where income inequality separates who has access to major technologies – planners need to correct that fault quickly. More investment in adaptable infrastructure should happen as well, so as to not lock society into 60 years of something that will be obsolete in 20.

Meanwhile, a lot of the buzz is around fully autonomous vehicles, which will probably be electric and shared as well. The RAND report’s “Driving Ahead” scenario focuses on this technology, whilst the UK government is investing heavily to be a world leader in its development. The UK research agency Transport Systems Catapult offers some thoughts on this future, summarizing the many potential benefits of going driverless.

However, it is clear from discussion around the report’s release that it is not only the difficulty of transition that may threaten an autonomously-driven society. Land use planners face a capacity conundrum. If autonomous vehicles result in much less parking adjacent to homes and commercial uses, what should that land be used for instead?

Other questions crop up as well. The vehicles themselves still need to be off-road some of the time, stored and maintained. Where is that going to happen? How do streets need to be re-configured for picking up and dropping off instead of parking? If the reduced travel cost and additional productive time offered by autonomous vehicles attract more use than the additional road capacity their efficient movement frees up, is the answer to build more road infrastructure?

The RAND report specifically ignores the need for new infrastructure. But even roads aside, all the scenarios require more electricity and information technology infrastructure, built to be as resilient as possible in the face of frequent severe weather and other disruptions.

Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Freight drivers may not be out of a job if the complicated work at either end of the journey becomes ever more involved with shared loading and consolidated delivery. Children may be able to play on the streets again as space is freed from parking, and if autonomous vehicles can be better trusted with their safety. And if policy makers and planners and transport practitioners are proactive about standards, regulations, taxation and investment, we can push the future to better resemble the RAND report’s more utopian “Live Local” vision, where a cost for driving replaces the gas tax and mobility is not only a service, but an equitable one.

Photo: A highway in the UK (Matthew Wilkinson, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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