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Autonomous cars driven by society, not technology

Johnny Cab: Driverless technology is being affected by more than just the automotive industry, sweeping social, political and technological changes are also playing a part in shaping the way we move about in the future.

Self-drive vehicles on horizon but social and political hurdles to be overcome: Ford

Ford logo2 Nov 2015

By TUNG NGUYEN

A SELF-DRIVING society is close to reality, but it will be the shifting attitudes of the younger generation and the changing needs of an ageing population that will govern how that future is shaped, according to Ford’s global consumer trends and futuring manager Sheryl Connelly.

Speaking at a special TEDx event in Melbourne last week, Ms Connelly discussed the future of transportation and the transition to driverless vehicles with a special panel of guests including Future Melbourne project director David Mayes.

Ms Connelly – who has confessed she is “not a car person” – studies social, political, economic, ecological and technological trends around the world for Ford, and said that to understand the “future of mobility” more factors than transportation would need to be considered.

“There are several other areas you have to explore,” she said. “What does the future of work look like? What does the future of retail look like? What is the future of social structure or social engagement? How will all these things play out?“I think young people grow in a time where digital devices transcend time and space, so hanging out doesn’t mean you need to be side by side. However, that connection is still quite meaningful.”

According to Ms Connelly, this “connection” has given birth to the development of the autonomous vehicle and remains one of the key driving factors in advancing the technology further.

“Some people are saying, ‘I have better things to do with my time’,” she said.

“The average speed travelled around the world is somewhere between 20-25mph (32-40km/h). The reality is that for those in Beijing, who have a five-hour commute, they want their time well utilised.”

However, development of the self-driving car is also being steered by the needs of elderly drivers, in some areas more so than people who want to remain connected during their commute.

“I think there is an even more compelling business case for making autonomous vehicles for the ageing population, which is a rapidly growing segment of the population,” she said.

“Scientists have declared that the first person to live to the age of 150 years of age has already been born. So someone says to you when you are 83, ‘it’s time to give up your keys’. Not a big deal if you think you are going to live to 85, but what if you lived to be 105, or 125?“Many of the building blocks that will give way to autonomous driving were inspired by ageing drivers, so blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, are all the building blocks that will lead us there.”

Despite South Australia recently permitting trials of self-driving vehicles, and tests taking place elsewhere in the world, Ms Connelly believes that self-driving cars could still be some time away as legislation and policy can be slow to catch up to technological advancements.

Ms Connelly likened the autonomous vehicle to the increase in popularity of drones. As governments adapt to emerging technologies, “potential problems” will arise.

“We are all hearing reports of private drones coming frighteningly close to commercial airlines,” she said.

“This, I think, will be an area that will be governed very rapidly, and I think it will be insightful in trying to understand that. If we can figure that out, we can figure out the vehicles that are on the ground.”

Although autonomous cars may be safer and allow occupants to remain constantly online, Ms Connelly warned of the unforeseen health risks involved with such technologies, most prominent being increased stress levels.

“I use my car as a sanctuary after a long day at the office,” she revealed.

“That’s when I shut off the radio, I hit the ‘do not disturb’ button, and for me, if I really want to give my family the best I have, I need to decompress from the day.

“The car can serve as a productivity capsule, but it can also be this place of solitude, where you can reflect, reversing the effects of stress.”

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