A time travellers account of 2059 – a connected civilisation
My name is Ted and I am a time traveller.
I know – crazy, right?
Anyway, I’ve arrived in England in the year 2059 to study the impact of our current technology on the world of tomorrow.
To get a lay of the land, I am interviewing someone from this time – a young woman called Amy. She is 15 years old and a true child of this era.
Here’s what I learnt:
The first and most important thing you need to know about life in 2059 is, everyone is connected to everyone and, everything.
The cars are driverless, and the cities are smart.
Instead of mobile phones, smart watches have become the go-to way people remain plugged-in. But they have evolved somewhat from the bulky frames and small screens we’re accustomed to.
From setting the room temperature, to watching movies on enlarged holographic displays, they’re the central location for almost all personal activities.
Amy shared a story about how her watch even helped her make the bus on time on her first day back to school.
She had just registered her attendance through her watch and was about to set-off to catch the school bus. This was of course a driverless bus – smart, efficient and most of all, reliable.
But, just as she finished registering, the bus immediately sent her a message to hurry up. It had checked her watch’s GPS to see if she was on her way and calculated that she would be late if she didn’t get a move on!
The death of the carpark
Her school has also seen other, more unexpected changes. For example, upon my arrival, I noticed they are in the process of transforming the staff car park into a beautiful herb garden.
Since the teachers started using the electric, driverless taxi fleets, most can’t afford the monetary or environmental cost of buying a personal car.
Manual combustion-engine cars are now viewed as inefficient. When they aren’t burning harmful fossil fuels, the other 95% of their existence is spent stationary in a carpark or driveway.
As you walk around London in 2059, you notice very few stationary cars. They all function a bit like a bus network but, instead of having static routes that only benefits the most popular urban areas, these vehicles can dynamically calculate the most efficient path for all its passengers.
And since they are mostly owned by fleet providers, and not individuals, their cost is shared across the people using them.
However, with significantly fewer passengers per vehicle, it can offer a much better service. And instead of remaining parked for 95% of its life, cars are out on the roads connecting people to places.
As a result, there are now a lot of conversations around what to do with all the former car parks. Many have been converted into green spaces – such as the herb garden.
To help put things into context, it’s important to understand the different levels of vehicle automation. Level 0 means no automation, 100% manually driven. On the other side of the scale, level 5 is full automation, with no need for human intervention whatsoever.
In 2019, we already have regular cars with assisted parking and cruise control. These sit at about Level 2. In 2059, we’re talking about Level 5 automation all round.
These cars don’t even have steering wheels. As they’re totally independent of human control, they communicate with each other to build a picture of the world.
But it’s not just cars talking to cars – they’re talking to navigation systems for constant traffic updates, to news outlets to find out about local events so they can predict where they will be needed most. And, they are talking to communication systems, so people can interact and socialise with each other while on the go.
This is what complete automation looks like.
In 2019, there are still valid concerns about how safe autonomous vehicles are. But, when I told Amy this, she shared a different perspective:
“I couldn’t imagine being a driver – so much responsibility! To always be aware of the road and the passengers…at the same time? That’s so dangerous!
“Buses use so many sensors to make sure we’re always safe. I remember this one time when Billy, my classmate, wouldn’t put his seatbelt on – the bus just didn’t move until he did. How’s a human driver supposed to know that?”
And Amy’s concerns about the limited attention span and general inconsistency of human drivers is fair. In the UK today, human error accounts for 85% of road collisions that result in personal injury.
The failure rate of the 360-degree LIDAR system is insignificant when compared to the number of times humans have been distracted, tired or drunk at the wheel.
People who worry about how expensive or potentially dangerous autonomous vehicles are going to be, forget that this has always been the case. At each turning point in the evolution of the automobile, people have had those exact concerns.
A long history of scepticism
When the first true automobile was invented by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769 France, the general public was pretty unimpressed (trust me, I was there).
Despite the monumental achievement of creating the first steam-powered tricycle, they would not accept it as an affordable or viable tool for transportation.
It wasn’t until Ford’s manufacturing revolution in the 1920s that the ‘fad’ begun to take hold.
People were sceptical then and they are sceptical now, it is only natural. Innovation can scare us – Britain’s Red Flag Act of 1865 didn’t allow road transport to improve for 31 years! Cars were only allowed to go at 2mph within cities and 4mph in rural areas.
Looking back, this may seem comical, but that’s exactly how Amy views our time.
Better accessibility for all
As for Amy, she is from a small family, made up of her parents and her dear grandmother. Turns out, her grandmother is a big fan of all the change brought on by the rise of autonomous vehicles.
Before, supermarkets could only send grocery delivery drivers out in the middle of the afternoon. Now, she can get them whenever she’s free at home.
Amy’s grandma also just bought a new hands-free wheelchair. She accompanied Amy so she could show it off to her friends in the driverless cars. The whole process was as easy as rolling into the car, strapping herself in and paying with a simple press of her finger on her watch.
It was great to see that this transition had increased mobility and accessibility for everyone. Back in 2009, a self-driving wheelchair project was dropped because each one cost up to $25,000. But, by 2018, prototypes were being built for as little as $1,500.
Time and again, we see costs fall as we find better, cheaper ways to manufacture products, making access easier for those that need it the most.
Job creation and evolution
Amy’s mother is a doctor and gets to drive a special doctors’ car, fitted with all the equipment she might need. She makes house calls for patients that need long-term recovery.
In 2019, people predominantly go to hospitals for all the care they need. As a result, a lot of beds are used up by long-term care patients, leaving limited beds available for emergencies.
Having a driverless car allows doctors like Amy’s mum to provide care to people in their own homes, where they’re most comfortable and have their friends and family around them.
And when she can’t visit, she uses a special video communication system from a screen in the car. This means that the average 274 hours a year she would have spent driving, is instead spent saving lives. This boost in productivity is estimated to be worth £20Bn to the UK economy.
Interesting fact – at night, all the unused doctor’s cars are kept as emergency vehicles dotted around the city. If someone needs to go to the hospital, the emergency button on smart watches summons the nearest doctor’s car. A voice over the speaker guides the user through basic first aid, and these cars get priority on the roads, so patients can reach the hospital quickly.
Amy’s father used to work as a car mechanic, but as the industry evolved, his job role adapted to the new challenges. Training courses helped him to take the leap forward and start his own garage. In 2059, cars undergo frequent self-checks and come to him if they sense a problem with their system or if it is time for their annual check-up.
He fixes them up – the body, engine and software – and sends them back out. And business has been booming, he’s even thinking about opening another garage. As car utilisation has increased due to constant cruising, maintenance work is done more regularly.
It is estimated that by 2035, 37,300 new jobs will be created following the switch to driverless cars. A thriving industry by 2059.
Increasing mobility with driverless cars has allowed people to apply for jobs further away from where they live. It has gone a long way to helping even out the North/South divide, as locations in the Midlands have become more accessible and hence, more prosperous.
New companies and start-ups no longer face such harsh competition from big brands driving up rent prices in London, increasing the demand for jobs.
The employment skills gap concerns can be addressed with the right kind of education, or re-education, such as apprenticeship programs, training courses and affordable higher education.
Lessons from time
So, what has the future taught me?
Something I already knew – we can, and must, learn from the past.
Change is inevitable and frightening and every innovation, from microwaves to Wi-Fi, has sparked debate.
But we have also conquered our fears and society has benefited as a result.
Autonomous vehicles will be no different.