Back to the Future

Did you know that hoverboards have now been invented? Funded by a crowdsourced Kickstarter campaign, you can surf a few inches above the ground. (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/142464853/hendo-hoverboards-worlds-first-real-hoverboard)

Have you heard about solar roadways? Solar panels strong enough for vehicles to drive over. Funded by a crowdsourced Indiegogo campaign, the company forecasts its first installation in Spring 2015. (http://www.solarroadways.com/intro.shtml)

Mainstream media is now reporting on the accelerating progress of practical and affordable driverless cars, which global corporations say will be available for sale in a few years.

There was even a prototype flying car unveiled at a technology show in Vienna just a few weeks ago (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/29/flying-car-liftoff-advanced-prototype-unveiled-aeromobil).

So perhaps the transport future that we all envisioned in the popular science fiction of the twentieth century, the future that a couple decades ago we thought would never come, has finally arrived. And we’re only 15 years into the new century. Is it time to celebrate?

Well, I’m all for crowd-sourced funding, crowd-sourced information and who doesn’t want a new high-tech toy? But what sort of future are these innovations heralding?

It seems that technology is once again racing ahead of society, legislation and human behaviour. Many people still enjoy the act of driving, so how will the law and highway engineering react to the interactions between driven and driverless cars? If a vehicle is driverless, then does no one need to be ‘in charge’ of it? Can drunk people have it chauffeur them around? Can blind people have an opportunity for a new level of independent mobility? What happens if the vehicle is involved in an accident? Who is legally responsible? The manufacturer?

What impact would a driverless car revolution have on society? The peak car theory suggests that young people prefer smartphones over steering wheels. Will they start choosing cars once more because they can use their devices whilst travelling? Will people interact less with the environment they are driving through and the people they are passing by? Driverless cars are being designed to be more energy efficient than human drivers can achieve. Perhaps they will even be electric, in which case less air pollution and less greenhouse gas emissions would bring environmental benefits. They are forecast to be safer as well, for both those inside the car and those outside. That’s another benefit worth celebrating. Yet driverless cars, like driven cars, still create congestion, still sever communities and reduce social interactions, still foster greater inactivity and thus reduce the health of the population. Thus, the negative social impacts of driving would persist.

Flying cars would have the same negative impacts, in addition to potentially expanding congestion upwards. Even solar roadways, with their proposals to start by replacing the tarmac in parking lots, buoy the retention and development of car-shaped, car-serving and even car-dependent neighbourhoods.

So if we want a future where traffic jams are in terminal decline and people connect in their local community with healthy levels of physical activity and social interaction, then maybe we need to go back to the future. Where people don’t pull out their devices because they are being driven by a robot, but stow them in their pockets in order to navigate a real place. Back to where walking and cycling and going more slowly are the modes that are culturally accepted or even celebrated.

With maybe a hoverboard or two thrown in.

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