Monday, July 27, 2015

Have Australian governments & councils considered the impact of disruptive tech like driverless cars?

Last week it was announced that the first driverless car trials would begin in Australia in Adelaide. Supported by the South Australian government and the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), the two-day trial involves Volvo's XC90, Bosch's driverfree technology and Telstra's network.

I'm a big fan of self-drive cars and have followed Google's US self driving car trials, as well as the European work by Volvo and other car makers for a number of years.

Besides the prospects of better traffic management, fewer accidents and less road deaths with consistent, tireless, undistractable computers controlling cars, self-drive cars offer the promise of more productive and leisure time for humans currently spending hours each week behind the wheel of their cars.

In a self-driving car future there's less need for private cars and massive car parks, more predictable road maintenance and potentially better population health outcomes as people don't face the stress of tail-gaters, road rage and other deplorable on-road driver behaviours.

However behind the glow of potential benefits that has governments and companies working towards a human-free driving future, there's some significant and highly disruptive impacts on industries and governments that the public sector and politicians need to consider.

Firstly, as self-drive cars take over there will no longer be any need for taxis or other paid drivers. Uber and similar companies are building logistics systems for moving humans that would allow people to simply summon a self-drive vehicle when they need it, and have it drive them to their destination.

Uber is already creating significant disruption in the taxi industry by providing an easy-to-use alternative to legacy taxi systems, with violent protests in France and governments in the US, Australia and other countries fining Uber drivers or prohibiting the service to protect the taxi industry and their existing taxi plate revenues.

Step forward a few years to when self-drive cars are widespread and taxis will simply not be able to compete for most travel needs, with paid drivers (if still allowed on the road) being a high-end service used by those who wish to show-off their wealth.

Similarly bus and truck drivers - particularly for long hauls - will find their jobs vanishing as computers, who need no sleep, replace them, making logistics systems more efficient and controllable.

Emergency services may also experience some shift in focus and reduction in staff, with paramedics focused on patients, not driving ambulances, firefighters able to plan and police able to work on cases as their cars transport them to where they are needed.

Severely disabled people will benefit, with the ability to summon a vehicle to take them to where they need to go, rather than waiting on human carers - which may also reduce the number of nurses required.

These industry dislocations will affect the number and type of jobs in an economy, necessitating rethinking of a government's priorities and approach. It may also have significant impacts on state public transit services as buses no longer require expensive drivers, potentially allowing more transport options on the road.

However there's even more profound consequences for governments who fund their activities partially through revenues raised from drivers and their mistakes.

Self-drive cars will not speed, drive dangerously or part illegally (without human intervention), meaning that speeding fines will disappear, along with parking inspectors and the fines they collect.

Drivers' license fees will vanish, together with many private car registration fees as more households shift to rely on Uber-style logistics services, which simply have a vehicle come to your door when you need it. Government parking fees may also fall dramatically, with cars redirected to low and no-cost parking locations outside city centres when not required.

With self-drive cars it's also likely that electricity will take more of a role in replacing petrol, meaning governments will raise less in fuel excise, reducing their ability to fund road maintenance and improvements.

Fortunately, with more consistent and predictable behaviour by self-drive cars, and the ability to divert vehicles to spread traffic load it's likely that road costs will diminish somewhat - however whether this offsets the reduction in revenue from car licenses and fuel is yet to be explored.

Self-drive cars are coming - they make sense to individuals, corporations and governments in many ways. Now we need some serious thinking by governments on how to manage the disruption that will be caused and how lost revenue will be replaced.

This isn't the only disruptive technology facing governments, but it is one of the biggest, with the potential for creating economy and society-wide change.

We need to begin consider the impacts of the change now, before it occurs, in order to manage it in the least impactful way for both governments and communities.

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