It’s hard to enjoy the weather when the climate presents such a threat. The solutions are frustratingly simple, just expensive.Read More
Tomorrow’s cars will reshape our cities
When I’m explaining the idea of today’s phenomenon of high frequency change, I often refer back to examples of change of great magnitude from the last century. One of my frequent reference points is the shift from the horse and cart to the car.
This was an enormous change, not least for the horses, nearly a million of which were made redundant in the UK alone. The advent of accessible car ownership shaped our cities. Cars required parking, both residential and commercial. Our easy range of travel increased. Families could spread out and remain physically connected. Stores could be larger and more geographically distributed. Commuting distances could be extended.
Not all of these things has proven to be a net positive.
What replaces the car will also reshape the city. And a large part of what replaces today’s cars will be, well, cars. But we often underestimate how different self-driving, electric cars will be to their human-steered, oil-fuelled counterparts.
Cleaner & quieter
For a start, there is the pollution. Electric means zero fumes but also dramatically less noise. Cars will be much nicer to have around when they are all electric. Proximity to a road for housing, cafes, and bars will be much less of an issue. Properties on busy roads may start to appreciate. Pavement culture can expand.
Semi-pedestrianised areas should be a safer prospect with self-driving cars, at least at some point in the future where their ability to deal with complex, fast-changing environments is well-developed and proven. We can build more of a ‘pavement culture’.
Though I have questioned the validity of the fleet model in the past, it still seems most likely to me that we will largely relinquish ownership of cars, particularly those of us who live in large cities. This releases huge amounts of space at the front of properties and in garages. Space that might be used to accommodate multiple generations of the same family, if house price inflation can’t be addressed. Spaces that might be used for growing fruit and vegetables that may become more expensive in the face of climate change. Space that might be used for collecting and storing energy as the grid becomes more distributed.
In city centres, parking lots may be turned over to housing. But this presents one of the less obvious potential impacts: parking is a major source of revenue for companies and councils alike, as my client Tim Devine from A J Gallagher pointed out at the Alarm risk management conference this week, where we were both speaking. It won’t just be drivers who see income disappear as machines take the wheel.
Fewer cars parked on the streets will clear pavements and make crossing safer. And they will ease existing, and free space for the addition of, bike lanes. Bikes and other personal transport should be safer around self-driving vehicles than humans. Self-driving cars will give cyclists more room on the road, and they won’t get aggressive. They shouldn’t fail to notice cyclists with the same frequency as drivers.
If there are more cyclists on the road, then perhaps we can expand bike lanes beyond single-width, creating space for other forms of personal transport. I still find it depressing that our cramped roads and narrow pavements mean we have largely closed ourselves off in the UK to balance boards, electric scooters and other novel forms of personal transport. They have their issues but I would love to see us create both the physical and legal space for experimentation.
Self-driving vehicles combined with other new forms of electric personal transport potentially add value to mass transit systems. A self-driving pod or electric scooter may be a good and cheap way to get from rail station to destination. But this will be a very different proposition to using a self-driving car for intercity travel. People are rightly questioning investment in new rail with self-driving vehicles on the horizon. Could they carry people between cities more efficiently?
I think this is unlikely, at least in the medium term. Given the recent performance of our rail network, a car that whisks you from door to door is incredibly attractive right now. But fix some fundamental issues with the rail network and it should remain the best prospect for rapid transit between most urban centres, and in many cases, around them.
As we make the transition from human to machine control — with full autonomy in a mass market car, licensed for the road, probably still a decade or more away — the roads will still be congested, and parking will remain a problem. It will take time for the fleets to build and their proposition to become a normal part of everyday life.
Autonomous, electric vehicles will have many other effects on our cities. Small garages and MOT centres will likely disappear as these vehicles will need less servicing and what they do need will mostly happen at fleet centres. There will be some form of charging infrastructure, though where that will be and what it will look like will depend on battery/fuel cell advances in the next decade. Taxis as we know them will likely be eliminated or at least drastically reduced in the long term.
All of these changes will take place, but the fact of them will slow the transition. Every change will have people lobbying against it. Long after the technology is ready we will still be arguing about whether should make the changes that we can.
I started this morning early, talking to James Max on TalkRadio about Uber’s latest announcements on self-flying drone taxis. At its second Elevate summit, the company announced partnerships with NASA and five aerospace companies to design, build, and test such vehicles, as well as some design mockups of what they could look like.
A few things were clear from the announcement, if they weren’t already.
Firstly, this is not a tomorrow technology, it’s at least a decade out. Partly the tech just isn’t ready: we need better batteries, lighter materials, quieter rotors, new safety systems, more reliable object detection and more. Partly, we’re not ready: the regulations surrounding this are many and complex, we don’t yet have confidence in robot pilots, and we haven’t even started thinking practically about what these devices might mean for our lives and work.
Secondly, this is not an ‘everywhere’ technology. The flying taxi isn’t a straight replacement for its wheeled alternative. Door-to-door flying is impractical in built-up areas. More likely these vehicles would have to land on a nearby pad. Yes, there may be many more of these than there are airports — eventually — but you’re still going to need last mile transit from the pad.
Where is it for then? I can see a business case for these devices doing short suburban or intercity hops. Uber is aiming for a range of 60 miles with a five minute recharge time. In the UK that might be a quick trip from Manchester to Liverpool or Leeds, around larger cities like London, or from London to Brighton. The speed of this travel might make it an attractive alternative to rail or road, particularly for business travel, and when a self-driving car can complete the trip.
In places like the US, with giant sprawling conurbations like LA or the Tri-State area, this form of transport really comes into its own. Rapid connections between business districts might be enormously valuable there.
This of course assumes that physical travel remains a realistic proposition in the face of rapidly-improving virtual communication. I’m confident that this is the case: the bandwidth of personal interaction face to face remains exponentially greater than that which can be achieved in any current virtual space. Replicating it will take time, and even then, I think our cultural attachment to physical interactions will mean it retains added value.
For now then, watch this space. Self-flying taxis are absolutely practical in a defined set of scenarios. But they won’t be replacing your commute any time soon.
You shouldn’t own a car. For all sorts of reasons. It’s a terrible asset that depreciates quickly. It consumes a huge proportion of your income, especially if you buy it on finance as so many people do now. When I was at Autotrader’s offices this week I saw an incredible stat: car buyers spend 68% more on the sticker price of a car when it is bought on finance than when bought outright.
On top of that there is the insurance, tax, maintenance, and the space as well. In a country desperately short of housing we give an incredible amount of land over to storing our vehicles. And they do spend a huge proportion of their time store, rather than in use.
Manufacturing cars to sit on driveways is also terrible for the planet, since a huge proportion of their carbon footprint is in their manufacture, rather than their use.
All-in-all, a future where we order up electric, self-driving cars from a shared fleet, on demand, looks like a pretty good prospect (unless driving is your profession, or you’re Jeremy Clarkson).
Or does it?
One friend, Republic of Things’ Andrew Beechener, made me question this whole argument with one simple sentence:
“I don’t know Tom, it just feels like the Radio Rentals model all over again.”
That phrase hasn’t left my mind since he said it a fortnight ago.
If you’re too young to remember Radio Rentals, many of us use to rent our televisions and video recorders. Rather than buy these big assets outright, we used to pay a monthly fee to borrow them. This was before you could pick up a 60in flatscreen for £300 in the supermarket. Cheap electrical goods made the rental model rather untenable.
(People still pay inordinate sums to finance electrical goods of course, from companies like BrightHouse. Buy a 55in Samsung UHD TV from this company on finance and you will pay over £1400, when you could pick it up for £529 at a high street story like Curry’s.)
Andrew suggested the same might happen with cars. Electric vehicles are simpler to build and maintain than petrol vehicles with many fewer moving parts. Because those moving parts are compressed into a slim chassis layer, it’s easier to produce these at higher volume (hence cheaper) and just have different bodies bolted on top. Performance characteristics can be determined by software upgrades rather than extra engine cylinders. The introduction of new materials into the process (cars are increasingly shaped from composites rather than metals) will also potentially make them cheaper over time.
I struggled a little bit to find good historical television prices to make a comparison, but as far as I can tell, a good quality 22in colour TV in the early 1980s would have set you back around £300. Accounting for inflation, that’s over £1000 in today’s money. Today an equivalent set would cost around £150. That’s nearly a seven-fold fall in price.
This is a hideous methodology, but imagine that all the technology changes above lead to a similar fall in car prices over the next 35 years. That would mean a solid mid-range saloon that might today cost £25,000 would be under £4000.
If you could get a really nice car for £4000 in today’s money, would you still use a fleet service? It’s certainly food for thought.
In reality, I think it is unlikely the cost of cars will fall anywhere near this far. Even with new materials, their raw resource requirements remain significant, especially for the power cells. And while renewable electricity generation should provide an unlimited, cheap and clean source of power, I don’t think their running costs will be allowed to fall to their potential lows.
Even with self-driving making road transport more efficient, what we don’t want is even more cars on the road, and taking up space. Legislation will likely be used to incentivise more shared infrastructure as climate change starts to bite more visibly in places like the UK.
As always, there is no one answer to these questions: some people will likely own a car and some people will rely on a fleet service. On balance, I think the latter group will be larger, especially as more and more of us congregate in densely-populated cities where car ownership makes less sense.
I’m glad I was forced to think about it though. Self-driving fleets being the future has become something of an orthodoxy, and those are always worth challenging.
Like this? Get more when you subscribe at subscribe.bookofthefuture.co.uk
In 2050, ‘trucking’ is nearly synonymous with ‘hitch hiking’, and truckers have become one of the most extreme examples of the gig economy.
Technology has transformed the haulage industry through two distinct but parallel advances. Rising levels of autonomy in vehicles, and the move from fossil fuel to electric.
Autonomy has brought predictability. The greater the number of autonomous vehicles on the road, the lower the number of accidents and delays — at least on the motorways and larger byways that are the major routes for the trucks. This has made stock holding practices even leaner, to the point where the average truck size is smaller, standardised around the 20ft shipping container. Automated warehouses hold stock inside vertical stacks of these containers before breaking them out for picking and packing.
Electric drive played a big part in bringing down the sizes. With lower servicing and fuel costs, there’s less need for the efficiency of large loads. And the smaller requirements and different drive technology have permitted a much more streamlined and efficient design, with the load low to the ground between independently steering pairs of wheels. Articulated vehicles are much less common.
There’s still a cabin at the front. But the person inside isn’t driving. The law requires a responsible person to be inside the vehicle in case of incident or breakdown. But the law requires no formal training beyond a simple introductory video and a set of processes that the person can be walked through by a digital assistant.
These truckers use the haulage network as a low-cost form of transport and small secondary income, with the minimum wage rates the job attracts paid only while they are en-route. At their destination, they hop out and use most of what they have earned to journey the last mile via autonomous taxi.
Technology didn’t destroy all of the driving jobs. But it diminished a huge proportion of them.
The laws of physics are constant. Once you understand them, your solutions to challenges like transportation are always going to look pretty similar. Which is why the Hyperloop is not new. It combines the technology of pneumatic trains, first deployed in the UK in the 1860s, with the technology of magnetic levitation, first demonstrated as a technology for trains in 1913.
This is not to say that the engineering challenge of the Hyperloop is simple. It will be a great feat when completed, and take advantage of huge leaps in our application of science since the days of the pneumatic train: computing, new materials, batteries, solar power and much, much more.
But the challenges it faces may not have changed much at all.
The hyperloop is, by its nature, an intercity transport platform. To get the advantages of its high speed, you need to be travelling a reasonable distance. Otherwise it has no chance to get up to speed before it is stopping again. Rough maths time: the proposed top speed of the hyperloop is around 1200 kilometres per hour, which is about 333 metres per second. At maximum acceleration, a Tesla car can pull about 1g or 10 m/s2 acceleration. That would get you near enough top speed in 30 seconds.
By comparison, a Pendolino train can reportedly accelerate at a maximum of 0.43 m/s2 — i.e. it takes 60 seconds to reach 60mph. Let’s say that the hyperloop can comfortably accelerate somewhere between the two. At slightly more than Pendolino rate, it’s going to take 11 minutes and perhaps more importantly, 54km, to get up to top speed. Crank the acceleration up to 2m/s2 and that comes down to 2m45s and 13.6km. At 5m/s2 it falls to just over a minute and 5km.
Now this may seem extreme, accelerating ten times as fast as a Pendolino, and I know some people who would be put off by that. Half a g is more than you would experience on takeoff and landing on a commercial airliner, for example — perhaps 2–3 times as much — though you might experience more on banking.
This, though, is what is proposed.
Stop and go
With 5km to get up to speed, and 5km to stop, on a short hop like Manchester to Liverpool (roughly 30 miles/50km), you’re only going to be at cruising speed for a couple of minutes. Indeed, the Northern Arc proposal suggests six minutes from Liverpool to Manchester, and seven from Manchester to Leeds. This would be absolutely transformative, genuinely making these cities part of the same economic zone, if the cost of travel is reasonable. Even Glasgow could be under an hour from Liverpool.
But this presents the new issue: how do you find the space for new tunnels — underground or in the air — between and through these densely-populated, organically-grown and mostly privately-owned urban areas? And how do you pay for those works?
If you look at the cost breakdown for HS2, it’s interesting to see that over £1.8bn of the original budget (since dramatically expanded) is allocated to land costs — half of that has already been spent. Once you strip out risk (nearly £13bn of the £33bn original 2011 costings), the biggest line items are tunnels, bridges, viaducts, and the construction works around the tracks themselves. These will be different for hyperloop but it’s hard to see how they will be *that* different.
Future technology in today’s world
I would *love* to see the Hyperloop become a reality in the UK, particularly the Northern Arc project that would have such benefits for the north of England and Scotland. But I fear that its futuristic vision may be stymied, or at the very least, slowed, by the challenges of construction in a complex and expensive environment.
For once as a futurist, I hope I’m wrong.
Renting over buying. Experiences over acquisitions. These trends formed a good chunk of the conversations at a scenario planning session I joined on the future of mobility last week.
These are themes I first came across in James Wallman’s ‘Stuffocation’ but they seem to have entered the general consciousness. A confluence of fashion, technology and harsh financial reality has created a generation that is more focused on what they can do that what they can buy. At least that seems to be the accepted wisdom.
As always it’s more complicated than that. There is no such thing as a generation, for a start. We do not grow up in discrete cohorts but rather as a continuous stream of overlapping lives. I’m notionally ‘Generation X’ but coming at the tail end of that invented cohort, I can’t say I totally identify with its supposed characteristics. I expect many early ‘millennials’ feel the same about their younger counterparts.
However, the perception of a move away from ownership and towards experience rings true. It fits with so many recognisable and measurable patterns of change.
Firstly, the financial. We know that it is increasingly hard to own your own home unless you are already on the property ladder. Wage stagnation, relative to rapidly-inflating property prices and tougher controls on mortgage lending, mean that fewer and fewer young people can buy. So they are obliged to rent. How long before a financial necessity becomes a cultural norm?
It’s not just houses that are increasingly rented: it’s true of many big capital assets. Cars, computers, even phones are acquired on various forms of leasing and finance.
Secondly, there’s technology factors. Technology lowers the friction in interactions, removing one of the drivers for ownership. If you can get a car of the right size, on demand, with none of the associated hassle of ownership, then why wouldn’t you? The only reason is status, or a hobbyist interest. I’ll address these below.
Right now, I think there’s still a good friction-based argument for ownership: it’s not quite as easy — or even as cheap, as I’ve demonstrated with my bangernomics experiments — to rely on Ubers and car sharing schemes. But the strength of that argument is diminishing all the time.
In areas other than transport, the rental vs ownership argument is long over. For the most part, it’s just not worth owning music, film, or books.
This leaves the personal aspects. Status. Hobbyist interests. Love of the medium — totally understandable with books or vinyl.
Status is the only one of these that might have been truly pervasive, and it’s easy to see how the markers of status shift in a digital age from the car you drive past your peers, to the pictures of your amazing holiday they see on Instagram. Experience rapidly trumps ownership in an age of digital media.
The new hedonists
There’s something rather pleasing about this. As someone of a rather utilitarian bent, I’m happy to accept pleasure as a reasonable measure of utility. Yes, there may be a narcissistic edge to some of the oversharing and staged presentations of people’s ‘perfect’ lives.
But if we’re going to be competing over anything, I’d rather it was about the fun we’re having rather than the sheer quantity of goods we’ve managed to accumulate, often at little benefit to our own well-being and at great cost to the planet.
I got wet last night. Really wet. So wet that my shoes are still sodden this morning. Which is a problem, because I’m in a hotel and I only brought one pair.
I’m at Cambridge University for a panel on the future of mobility, bringing together futurists, designers, energy and policy specialists to understand the direction of travel, if you’ll forgive the pun.
The irony of arriving at such an event, my shirt translucent from the water, looking like I’d just emerged Darcy-like from a lake, because of a lack of transport from the station, was not lost on me. Nor was the evidence it provided for what is wrong with our current mobility systems, particularly when affected by inclement weather.
Walking not waiting
The first thing I noticed when leaving the station was an enormous queue of people waiting to get into a taxi. One that stretched well beyond the available shelter. The queue of taxis waiting to pick them up was relatively much smaller. The line of people was barely moving at all because of the time taken to get people into the taxis and for the taxi to move off was so long.
I quickly decided that I would get just as wet walking as waiting.
Once I saw the traffic down the main street, I was fairly confident this was the right decision. Only bicycles were making any real progress, but with the pouring rain and darkness this felt like a hazardous mode of transport. I could have caught a bus, if I could have worked out which one to board, but again that would have meant waiting: in line in the rain, then inside in the traffic.
As I approached my destination I came across a taxi rank. Full of cars. And with no-one queuing.
By this point it was too late.
It could have been so different.
Information about train arrivals and their likely cohort of disembarking passengers, is not difficult to acquire. Provisioning sufficient cars to collect all those wanting them should be relatively straightforward, given the caveat below.
As should creating a boarding system that doesn’t introduce so many delays.
The caveat is that you can only provision cars that can make it back to the station through the traffic to pick up new passengers having deposited their previous fare. How do you solve the traffic issue? Take a lot of the private cars off the road and hand the piloting of all vehicles over to connected intelligences. They will speed flow, eliminate blocking behaviours, and ensure the traffic keeps moving.
Technical reality, human possibility
All of this could be made real tomorrow. Nothing I have described is unfeasible with today’s technology. We are the only barriers to making it happen. Not without good reason, in some respects.
We like control. It’s hard to hand trust over to machines that will, inevitably, fail at some point and cause injury and death. But I can tell you now: they will save many, many more lives than they take.
We like ownership. Of our vehicles, our portable palaces, particularly. Though I think this feeling is in decline. I still love what cars represent but I am less and less attached to the hunk of metal on my driveway, choosing to travel by bike, bus or train at every opportunity.
I don’t think I’m alone.
Even those who love their cars increasingly choose to rent them, in one form or another, rather than buy them outright. This is one important mental step along the way to accepting mobility as a service rather than as a poorly-utilised asset.
There are clear job implications for replacing drivers with machines. There are around 300,000 taxi drivers in the UK. Tens of thousands of bus drivers (I couldn’t find a good figure for this but it’s fair to guess it’s a multiple of the 36,000 buses).
There’s also the issue of a loss of stories. How would I have started this blog post if every journey is smooth, perfect and efficient? It seems a frivolous point in the face of the above, but there’s a lot to be said for the variety and narrative value of our lives.
Slow not stop
These things only affect when the change will come. The future is pretty certain at this point: we will hand control of our mobility over to machines. They will be more efficient. They will be safer. The orders of magnitude improvements in safety, cost, time loss, and pollution, make it inevitable.
Human factors will slow this transition. But they will not stop it.
I talk a lot. More specifically I talk a lot about how ubiquitous technology is today and what effect that has. Ubiquitous technology strips friction from our interactions, lowers barriers to access and enables rapid innovation and development. Not all of these things are the positives they sound to be. Just look at the landfills full of tat we will create this Christmas. But for me, right now, ubiquity is a boon.
Programmable magic wands
Before I started talking and writing for a living, I thought I was going to be an engineer. I did all the classic engineer things. Dismantled all my toys and anything else I could get my hands on. Built lots of random stuff. First out of foil and rubber bands. Later out of MDF and veroboard. Bike wheel wind turbines, radio-controlled sailing boats, Spectrum-based robot controllers, and a couple of very heavy, very dangerous wakeboards. All sorts.
A few years ago I really rediscovered my love of making, enabled by the incredible accessibility of components via eBay and AliExpress. I’ve been playing with all sorts of projects since, most still semi-complete. But now I think I have found the motivation I need to get things finished. Do them for my kids.
The project that has brought this home is building programmable magic wands. I’d been considering a magic wand for my youngest for Christmas. Not one for performing. One for play-acting. Casting spells and shooting out crystals Lolirock/Winx Club-style to fend off evildoers. That’s her favourite fantasy world. But all the toy ones I found were too flimsy.
I wanted something more robust. Then one night at dinner we were discussing Laser Quest, and I figured, why not combine the two? Could I make some magic wands and targets so they could shoot spells at each other? Even better, could I make it all programmable? What a way to teach code: write your own spells.
A few hours of hacking later and I had two rechargeable magic wands made from old toilet cistern parts. What can I say? I horde. A lot. And with a little Dremel-ing they were the right shape and size. Some RGB LEDs, a couple of Arduino Pro Minis, recycled 18650 Li-Ion batteries from an old laptop, and switches recovered from the front of a PC. Total cost? Less than a couple of quid.
— Tom Cheesewright (@bookofthefuture) December 18, 2016
The targets won’t be much more. Perhaps the only components I will need to buy will be the infra-red receivers. As I say, I horde. A lot.
This is ubiquity in action. Custom toys, in hours, for pounds.
Further lessons in bangernomics
A week ago my car started making an ominous noise. The sort of clunk that anyone intimately familiar with the drivetrain of a modern automobile knows means expense. Sure enough, the garage confirmed my suspicions. It already had a fairly serious fault, but that was fixable at a reasonable cost. This was economically terminal.
The car had only lasted twelve months since I bought it. I never expected it to last that long with over 120k on the clock, but I was worried about my record. I was aiming for a total acquisition and maintenance cost over my ownership of less than £50 per month. With the bits of servicing I’d done, this was going to be more like £75. £800 to buy, £30 on MOT and £60 on brakes.
Fortunately — and trust me a danced a little jig afterward — I managed to get a decent trade-in against a replacement. £340 back meant I smashed my £50/month target, demonstrating just how cheaply you can own and operate a car now, tax and insurance notwithstanding.
We are at peak car right now. The technology is totally ubiquitous and hugely accessible.
SES is soon to become the first company to use a ‘second hand’ rocket to send a payload into space. One of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters, which landed safely on a drone ship after delivering a payload to the International Space Station in April, is to take the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit.
This is a hugely important step. Re-usable rocket boosters could dramatically drop the cost of getting into orbit. And in doing so, increase the accessibility of space.
As accessibility increases, so the range of applications that people start to find for space will increase. In fact, many applications that have always been science fiction might start to become reality. Like space-based solar power, asteroid mining, zero-gravity manufacturing, and longer-range human spaceflight.
Right now the space economy largely consists of placing satellites in low-earth orbit. This is what most rockets spend most of their time doing. It’s a pretty unregulated economy up there — something NASA is concerned about. But today’s space economy will look positively conservative once the new gold rush really begins.
Cost per kilo into low-earth orbit is likely to fall from around $20,000 to $2000 in the next couple of years. When it does, the opportunity becomes much more tangible.
Some start-ups are already pushing the envelope of what’s possible. LikePlanetary Resources, gearing up to mine asteroids. But there will be many thousands more, each with their own idea about how to build a business out of the available resources.
The first businesses will be entirely Earth-focused. Like Planet, providing photographic coverage of the entire Earth. Imagine carbon-free space-based solar power. Or access to rare materials mined from asteroids. We weren’t joking when we made In The Future: asteroids might really save the earth.
But where things really start to get exciting is when space has its own economy. Fuel stations, for example. Someone will extract ice from asteroids. Someone else will use solar energy to split it into hydrogen and oxygen to power rockets beyond Earth’s orbit. Space factories building space craft and space habitats will need materials mined in space: bringing them up from Earth will be too expensive, even at the lower rates.
Someone will profit from all of these things. But be warned: this economy probably doesn’t provide a huge jobs boost. Space is a dangerous place. Everything that can be automated, will be — just as SpaceX’s launchers and landing ships are now.
Will future cars free our time or enslave us to our AI masters?
Fifty years ago, when a computer ‘bug’ still meant a wee beastie crawling into one of the valves, the US navy handed the landing of aircraft on carriers over to machines. Why? They were better at it. Safer, and more consistent.
In time we will put the piloting of more craft into robot hands. The simple fact is that machines are already better than us at driving cars. The challenge now is one of commercialisation, political, and finally social acceptance.
Yes there will be deaths. The first last week will not be the last. But there will be many fewer.
We will spend less time on the road as a result. But what time we do spend there will be ours to do with as we please. Without the frustration or exhaustion of piloting a couple of tonnes of tin between other over-stretched monkeys in their own metal shells.
So what are we going to do?
In reality, this is only one area of our lives where time is suddenly likely to become abundant. At least in relation to the current state of time-poverty that most working people experience. Strip away the undoubtedly troubling aspects of the destruction of employment — I’ve covered that many times elsewhere — and just think about what we will do. When machines answer the phone, manage our administration and expenses, file our accounts, open doors, transport us where we want to go, and even help us to more efficiently transcribe our thoughts.
What will we do?
I’ve already suggested we might learn. Education might bring some of the rewards we miss when the availability of work is diminished. But what about play?
Perhaps this is the Matrix-like end goal for virtual reality. Hundreds of us in our future cars being transported around while embedded in a game, all senses synced to a different plane. We might even be enjoying the thrill of driving.
Joking aside, play is important. And play could be hugely valuable. It could be an opportunity to restore the human experiences that modern life has stripped away: danger and excitement, risk and reward.
Play does not have to be an activity of consumption: it can be an act of creation. And it can be an act of collaboration.
Imagine seas of commuters in their future cars, formerly separated by their steel shells now connected by a shared virtual experience. Interacting without the stress of the commute. Playing together.
To me this would not be a colder world. It would be more human, not less.
I’ve been riding around on a Future Wheels Smart Glider, one of the many brands of balance board, for a couple of weeks now. One of the joys of my sideline on radio and with The Loadout is that I get to test gadgets like this. And with the Smart Glider it’s fair to say that my colleague Mason and I have put the effort in. It shows.
The Smart Glider is one of the higher-quality balance boards out there. It is equipped with a pair of strong motors and good quality batteries. If things go wrong you have a UK importer or retailer to turn to for support. But because it is encased in the same plastic case as cheaper models, it suffers some of the same design and cosmetic problems: a tumble here and a tumble there (and you will tumble — especially if you experiment with its top speed as I did) and it soon looks pretty scratched.
This doesn’t affect its function: apart from an occasionally over-sensitive safety cut-off throwing me off, it has been very reliable and good fun. And I believe the manufacturers when they say its batteries will be good for a few thousand cycles.
But this isn’t true of all of these boards. Many are made to a price more than a standard. Cheaper internal components means less-powerful motors, lower quality, and lower capacity batteries, and weaker structure. Some of them have their internals held together with masking tape. Search the forums and you’ll find all sorts of horror stories.
If the swegway/balance board/hoverboard/whatever you want to call it is the success I’m expecting this Christmas, there will be an awful lot of them junked by the end of January.
This will disappoint a lot of parents and children, but more importantly it suggests the extension of a depressing trend in consumer technology: design for rapid obsolescence.
This is not new of course: we have been designing goods to need replacing for a very long time, in order to maintain the consumer cycle. But there was some evidence that simple economics was driving a slight slowdown in the replacement cycle for many categories.
Laptops lasting longer because web-based applications simply didn’t need more grunt from old devices (and because in a downturn companies are glad to slow the churn of hardware). Phones lasting two years rather than 18 months because operators didn’t want to keep subsidising new devices at short intervals. Tablet and eReader sales falling because like the laptops, once bought they remained capable for a few years.
Now that the mass manufacturing capabilities of China can turn out mechatronic goods like the Smart Glider at a consumer-friendly price point we might see a new wave of carbon-intensive, short-lived kit bound for land-fill.
Or perhaps we might see something else.
Because the design of these devices is largely universal, all drawn from the same source, it’s possible that many of their parts will be interchangeable. They’re not designed to be easily maintained, but like a bike or a skateboard, perhaps the keen will find a way.
If the appeal of these devices sustains, maybe we’ll see skate shops or bike shops start to offer to service and upgrade them? Maybe there will be a market for customisation and performance components? Their lives might be extended in a way that isn’t possible for more tightly integrated consumer electronics.
This may well be a vain hope. Some of my initial optimism that these devices will go beyond a sci-fi novelty has worn off.
But you never know. Riding around the reaction I have had has been a mixture of wild excitement (usually from the under 12s), amused interest (most adults) and abuse (my friends). Will that translate into a more sustained user base?