4th industrial revolution: road to mayhem?

4th industrial revolution: road to mayhem?

This is an edited version of a speech by Katherine Teh, Managing Director of Futureye, to the 28th Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) International Conference in April, 2018

Not long after the dawn of the twentieth century, my great grandfather attended the Australian Carriage Makers Society’s last ever council meeting.

I think about my great grandfather and his colleagues at that meeting, realising that their passion, their life’s work and livelihoods were redundant in a world where technological development was moving at a pace that you’re not ready for and that you can’t keep up with.

Humans have experienced technological revolutions before and always with significant social upheaval and disruption.

Today’s society is likely to be more vocal about their dissatisfaction and the change is likely to be faster than any other industrial revolution.

Let’s consider the people who drive trucks, buses, taxis and Ubers today and who make up around three per cent of the working population. The arrival of autonomous vehicles will cause major disruption to their lives just like my great grandfather experienced with the arrival of automobiles.

Pundits are also expecting a radical shift from urban car ownership, with a fall of 70 per cent by 2050 as people switch to robo-taxis.

The job loss caused by the arrival of driverless vehicles and the roads of the future will be far reaching and extend beyond jobs in the transport sector, impacting people employed in finance, insurance, law enforcement, medicine, construction, auto repairs and manufacturing.  

Intelligent roads and the future of asset management will make building, managing and maintaining roads simpler. The digital and physical connectivity of roads will improve congestion and safety. We will see the fine tuning of urban transport systems so that cities can be built for people, not for cars. From a technical point of view, things look great!

However, the impacts of these phenomena are raising some serious social and ethical questions. We are already seeing the beginnings of significant labour dislocation resulting from increasing AI and automation.

How can we create knowledge for tomorrow’s transport challenges, and solutions for today? How can we engage the Australian public – the taxpayers who pay for and use our roads – so there is public alignment with the transport revolution?

There is a growing awareness that changes resulting from the transport revolution will involve key political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental impacts within a transforming competitive market. Failure to address these broader impacts could result in the required pace of transformation being impeded or compromised.

I’m sure we all heard the news of a driverless Uber running over and killing a pedestrian in Arizona forcing Uber to suspend its North American driverless vehicle testing. This is a major event. It is symbolic in the eyes of the public: essentially, a robot has killed a human.

Societal concern is building and conflict or inaction in the face of this exposes the driverless vehicle industry to the risk of losing its social licence to operate.

There are a lot of concerned people out there who are unsure what the future of transport means for them. A report from the White House predicts ‘almost total automation’ of heavy trucking, delivery drivers and ‘on-demand’ drivers like Ubers and taxis.

With increased safety there will be fewer road accidents and a decreased need for jobs in road side assistance, auto repairs and car insurance.

With fewer traffic infringements and a decreased need for parking there will be fewer jobs in this type of law enforcement. The large sums of local council revenue derived from speeding cameras and parking tickets will dry up.

Smart sensors in roadbuilding materials and routine maintenance will reduce the need for costly rehabilitation but that also means less work for engineers and construction workers.

Not everyone can become a technologist or a computer scientist. People out of work as a result of AI will need roadmaps to help them transition out of their jobs and into others. There will need to be job search assistance, education, training and apprenticeships to build and certify new skills, and wage insurance.

How will the politicians and policy makers resolve these challenges and manage the winners and losers of the transport revolution?

In Europe, the concept of road charging, or ‘smart pricing’, is gaining popularity with governments as a means of managing traffic, reducing congestion and financing the road networks.

However, tolls often penalise people who can afford them the least. Will we compensate low socio-economic people living near toll roads?

Will the robo-taxis of the future serve all destinations in our cities? Failure to connect low socio-economic outer suburbs could open the door to segregation and discrimination.

Driverless vehicles will demand new infrastructure on our roads. Will roads of the future be rolled out in rural areas, as well as cities?

This analysis should make at least one thing clear: all of these issues are inextricably linked. To mitigate these risks, it requires systemic thinking.

Public dialogue and engagement around the transport revolution is rapidly falling out of sync with the rate of change. With low public alignment for the transition, we face a pending crisis the very moment the transport revolution begins.    

The transport sector has some serious trust and accountability issues that need to be resolved before the implementation of driverless vehicles.

Regulation will be key – it also has a major role to play in social acceptance. If the public perceive the regulation to be too lax, it creates a risk of feeling less in control. Regulation can be a good friend to adoption. It can make people feel safe, depending on the positioning. A feeling that driverless vehicles are ‘outside the law’ will seriously impact trust.

There are good reasons to be mistrustful about corporate and government data handling. The lack of public trust is seen as a ‘problem that needs to be fixed’. Instead it should be seen as a genuine issue in the process of data handling and an opportunity to genuinely engage the public. The public needs to be informed about the risks of malicious hacking on driverless systems.

In relation to the ethical questions, there need to be agreed-upon standards and guidelines. The world’s first ethical guidelines for driverless vehicles is a report from Germany’s Ethics Commission on Automated Driving. It found that some decisions might be too morally ambiguous for driverless vehicle software to resolve.

We don’t have an agreed-upon set of standards in Australia. It’s time to start involving the public more in the decision-making process in order to mitigate the perceived risks. We need to let them operate as a ‘back seat driver’, regularly assessing performance.

To conclude, I ask you to think deeply about the long- and short-term impacts of the transport revolution. Does your organisation have a structured way to identify social licence risks and offset the negative impacts?

How would you measure and consistently build capacity in different channels of your organisation to respond to societal concerns and progress towards narrowing the expectations gap?

A social licence mindset has to be implemented across the many players in the industry. It should dictate what you do across the organisation. Like any strategic evolution it requires vision and courage at board and executive level. It also requires ongoing employee engagement, skills development, system improvement and evaluation.

Without governance, lead measures and a change program behind a social licence to operate strategy, it will fail.

Today’s decisions will set the basis for the future of our transport systems. It’s important that we get it right.

October 2018