The first generation of people to rely entirely on driverless transport has already been born. So Justin Anderson, chief executive of smart systems firm Flexeye, tells NCE this week.
He believes the internet of things - a web of sensors on infrastructure and objects - will facilitate automated travel on a grand scale.
This is not the stuff of fantasy. As Anderson points out, Tesla’s electric car can already read road signs and act accordingly, as well as braking automatically and going from 0-60mph in around three seconds. Driverless cars are being tested across the United States and in several parts of the UK - and that is just the start.
It is very easy to see into Anderson’s future where smart phones are used to hail driverless cars and drones are making running repairs to infrastructure guided by sensors notifying everything from when a bridge bearing requires replacing or a road is flooded.
The thing that is difficult is juxtaposing such a visionary future within our existing - and lengthy - infrastructure planning process.
Here we are, busy planning for Crossrail 2, High Speed 3 and much more infrastructure besides which will, at the earliest, come into use in the 2030s - a time when, according to visionaires like Anderson, things such as personal car ownership and mass transit heavy rail will already feel as outdated as fax machines.
It’s a real dilemma. Crossrail 2 is not a luxury project. It’s vital. The Tube is collapsing under the weight of demand and that is only going to rapidly get worse as London’s population grows.
Arguably the same could be said for High Speeds 2 and 3. But by the time we build these megaprojects there is a very believable scenario where commuters will be zapping around in an entirely different mode of transport.
Maybe for this reason alone it is good to see Crossrail 2’s Growth Commission thinking big, and talking up how it is going to unlock up to 200,000 new homes and support 200,000 additional jobs from the Solent to the Wash. It has to be about more than just building a conventional railway.
I’m not sure whether Sir Merrick Cockell’s Growth Commission - whose members were named this week - has an agenda to look at the way in which Crossrail 2 gels with the idea of a driverless car future.
But with a past ICE president numbering among them, here’s hoping it will be.
Crossrail 2 definitely needs to happen. But how it will work within a hugely different, technology-led future is something that also needs to be discussed, and soon. And it is for us engineers to lead it.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor