Change how we travel, change the world

Self-driving vehicles will reshape more than the automotive: they have the potential to change everything from retail to the very fabric of our cities.

A revolution in mobility could well birth one of the most profound changes to the way we live we’ve seen in generations. In fact, it could be literally civilisation-changing. How do I know?

It nearly always is.

The very fabric of our world is shaped by mobility. Britain, where I live, is still shaped around roads built millennia ago by the Romans. Streets build to move that efficient and terrifying fighting force around Europe still define our cities and motorways even today. Many modern cities were defined by their transport infrastructure. London, in particular, grew along the suburban railways that reshaped the ability to commute. The internal combustion engine doomed some cities and drove some into a growth position that led to them getting the major airports, and a promotion to a world scale city.

Every major change in mobility changes our expectations for the way we live, and facilitates things we don’t expect. Even the digital revolution we’ve all lived through is facilitated by a global transport and manufacturing network. It’s easy to forget that Silicon Valley and Shenzhen are both equally vital to today’s digital landscape.

The next big mobility thing

There are three major changes coming our way:

  • Electric vehicles
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Drones

Electric vehicles are already with us, and are proliferating fast. New infrastructure will be needed to support them.

At the most simple level, using the garage as storage — which seems endemic in many countries now — might seem like a poor choice when you need it to charge the car every evening. But, beyond that, part of our urban landscapes are shaped by the internal combustion engine: the need to charge cars rather than fill them up will reshape that need. This could actually see an increase in land for automotive use, as electric cars take longer to charge than petrol cars do to fill-up. That opens up business opportunities around refreshments and entertainment as vehicles are charging.

Or will the parking lot or garage reshape itself into a charging station, with people wandering around towns and cities while their vehicles charge, rather than whiling away time in service stations by motorways?

Some work done for the World Economic Forum is advocating a transformative move to electric vehicles, for both sustainability and economic reasons:

  • Electrified autonomous vehicles will revolutionize urban mobility by decreasing the overall cost per mile by up to 40% and reducing congestion in cities.
  • Fleets that are integrated with clean, digitalized, decentralized and non-dispatchable (that is, not easily turned on and off) electricity resources will boost consumption of electricity generated by solar and wind generation, lessening the need to curtail production of these clean energy sources and further reducing total emissions.

Drones, too, start to reshape the landscape, as they pick up delivery tasks. They’re ideal for urban environments, but even rural environments could benefit from a “hub and spoke” model, with conventional trucks bringing the goods to a central distribution hub, and then drones covering the last mile(s).

The revolution to air travel might spread further than just drones, though. Norway is planning on making all short haul flight electric, within the next 25 years…

A self-driving car is a no more a “car” than an iPhone is a “phone”

Once autonomous vehicles really kick in, though, things get really interesting. Sure, there’s the time freed up by not actually needing to drive your car, and that leads you to wonder what car/phone sync systems like Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto will look like in a decades’ time: will they be the in-flight entertainment of the autonomous car age?

That’s not the real impact, though. The interesting thing about autonomous vehicles, is that you probably don’t need to be in them. It could take you to work, but then it could head for home to park – or settle itself down in a much more densely packed car park, which doesn’t need to allow for humans getting in and out, where it just pops out to collect you when needed. Alternatively, it could pop off, pick up some shopping for you, take the children home from school, and still be back in time to pick you up.

That’s if you even own a car. I’ll confess: my car hasn’t moved for four days now. I’m not a regular commuter, and much of what I do locally I can achieve by walking. I suspect that it would be pretty easy to convert me to a car renter – using an evolved version of something like Uber to just summon a car for my family and I when we need it, rather than having one sat around the whole time. That, then has implications for all sorts of space use: do I need the garage? Do I need the driveway? Do we need the density of car parks we have right now, if we have fewer cars spending linger on the roads?

The complexity these three technologies unleash is vast. It will shift how we work, play, holiday — and plan our cities. The results will be unpredictable – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start thinking, planning and looking for ways to make sure these changes enhance the quality of our lives, rather than leaving us with urban wastelands and abandoned property as a fundamental change to our mobility once again reshapes our relationship with geography.


Joey Kyber