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Cars in traffic in a city

You Asked Us: Are driverless cars still the future of urban mobility?

Autonomous vehicles: next-generation mobility solution, or the jet packs of the 21st century? You asked us...

World Built Environment Forum
17 November 2020

Violeta Bulc was the EU Commissioner for Transport between 2014 and 2020 and has also served as Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Slovenia. Today, she is an entrepreneur, innovator, engineer and author. Immediately after our webinar earlier this month, she took time out to answer further questions submitted by listeners.

Autonomous vehicles, like other autonomous technologies, pose a real threat to jobs. How can we manage this significant social challenge?

Violeta Bulc: I would invite a broader view of this topic. It is true that with every technological revolution, and even many tech evolutions, some jobs disappear. However, new jobs are created, as well. That is why it is essential that the entire sector collaborates to ensure that routes to re-qualification are opened. Access to training in skills that reflect modern industry needs pay a social dividend and, at the individual level, help people to avoid personal disaster. A good example of such behaviour is the maritime sector’s ‘blue economy’ initiative. This is a skills and career development agenda that has recognised, and aims to bridge, the gap between typical training provided by the education sector and emerging market needs. It helps workers to adjust to the changes of digitalisation and decarbonisation, and also seeks to create ocean literate citizens, in pursuit of a healthier planet.

One touted benefit of autonomous vehicles is that they will help in the creation of a “shared economy” through the spread of communal use or “ride share” schemes. How do you assess that prospect in light of the COVID-19 crisis? Isn’t the reality of social distancing that many people will revert back to the private automobile?

VB: I believe that we find shared mobility in the same situation as many other service-based businesses. However, with very swift action and a strong communication, service providers can create trust between themselves and the public. Demonstrating that cars are being thoroughly disinfected after every use is one means of doing this. At least in Ljubljana, ride share services have remained fully operational throughout the pandemic.

In the 1970s and 80s everybody thought we’d be flying around on jetpacks by 2020, and yet the gift of personal flight still eludes us. How do you hope to convince sceptics like me that driverless cars are more than just the jetpacks of the 21st century?

VB: Well, firstly, jet packs may not be as far off you think! In the last five years, the EU jumped decades ahead of the rest in recognising urban aviation space. This move was taken in readiness for the introduction of airborne urban mobility solutions. But, to answer your question, I agree with you – at least, to an extent. Many in the tech world, and society more generally, have underestimated the amount of work that still needs to be done on driverless cars. If we are to enable a safe, inclusive, affordable and market-ready paradigm shift, we must invest time and funds in the development of standards, regulation and skills training. My belief has always been that we cannot realistically hope to see widespread autonomous mobility before 2050. Highly-automated mobility is a nearer-term prospect, but even that is probably unlikely to arrive until the 2030s or even 40s.