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Paul Temple

Steering Column

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By Paul Temple

The SRHE Blog hasn’t featured a motoring column before – and actually it’s a bit late to start: if you’ve recently bought a new-ish car, it may well be your last one. That’s because the car makers and the big tech companies are betting the farm on driverless (“autonomous”) cars being the future of road travel – not in some “weekend breaks on Mars”-type sci-fi scenario, but in the next couple of years. At the end of February, an autonomous Nissan Leaf drove six miles around East London, including negotiating a roundabout on the A13 that scares me. It’s generally assumed that these cars mostly won’t be owned by individuals, but will be driverless taxis, summoned to your door (at least, in towns). Most new cars are already at or near what the industry calls “Level 3”, with sensors for parking, automatic braking, lane guidance and so on; “Level 4” cars will add all this to artificial intelligence and so do away with the human driver. The computer won’t make the stupid mistakes that all human drivers do – so one effect that’s already been noted will be the “nice to have” problem of a reduction in the number of transplant organs available.

It’s the combination of the scale and the imminence of this revolution that makes it so interesting social scientifically: this won’t be a gradual evolution, but a big bang – one year, cars like we’ve always known them; a year or two later, a transformation. Like an avalanche, unnoticed high up on the mountain, it is about to sweep down. (Look at one of the many blogs on this, such as “Connected Cars”, to get a sense of how fast things are moving.)

Why should this be of interest to higher education researchers? Most obviously, it will change some universities physically: the parking problem for out-of-town campuses (the last time I drove to Warwick University, I was directed to car park 16) should be solved, as autonomous vehicles will drop people off, pick up new passengers, and zip off with them. The vehicles won’t hang around, cluttering up the campus; and will be cheap to use, as most of the costs of a conventional taxi are the driver’s wages. City-centre universities (and city centres themselves) have developed around public transport links, but new possibilities will open up if autonomous cars can drop people at the door – and of course, this will transform life for anyone with a physical disability. We should be thinking about what universities should do to make the most of all this. Clark Kerr famously defined a university as a group of academic entrepreneurs united by a shared grievance over parking: with the parking problem removed, one might (only semi-facetiously) ask, around what grievance will the university of the future be defined?

But these really are marginal issues. The employment and income distribution impacts will be profound, with tens of millions of jobs worldwide at risk in all the businesses that revolve around the current car economy – already, New York cab drivers, having glimpsed the future and not liked it one bit, are lobbying for a state-wide ban on driverless cars. Naturally, as with all technological upheavals, there will be winners as well as losers; but the losers tend to be very vocal. For universities, this means important research opportunities in delineating the shape of the car economy 2.0: how it will work, what the wider impacts will be. Just as the car to a substantial extent defined the shape and feel of the twentieth-century city, how will the autonomous vehicle redefine the twenty-first-century city? There is, surely, a huge multi-disciplinary research agenda here – though not one that the ESRC, for example, seems to have spotted. For our part, higher education researchers should be thinking about the epistemic and institutional structures needed to allow universities to take a lead. The 1963 study, Traffic in Towns, usually known as the Buchanan Report, prepared at a time when “the Motor Age is still at a comparatively early stage”, is probably best remembered for its disastrous support for urban motorways (to be fair, that was only part of the story), but at least serious thought was given to the effects of traffic growth. We need an update for the 2020s.

The driverless car won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course. One friend (“But I like driving!”) will still want to send the rev counter of her Jaguar shooting around the dial – though when she sees that the new Tesla autonomous electric car can accelerate from 0-60 in a hard-to-imagine 2.5 seconds, even she may reconsider.

PS: She says, “No, she won’t!”

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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