The return of the clear and open road?



Anyone who lives in a crowded city knows the perils of parking. Those of us who live in commuter towns are used to seeing an endless line of cars jammed head to tail on roads around the station.

It’s hard to imagine what such roads looked like 50 years ago without the traffic jams. But the news that motor manufacturers such as VW and Toyota are hedging their bets by taking stakes in both car sharing services and taxi apps suggests that in some areas of Britain at least, the empty roads may well return.

The question that’s emerging is why you would invest thousands of pounds in a car, with all its additional costs and taxes when you could simply call up a car to pick you up or share a ride to work? Why would you pay to have two tonnes of metal lying idle on your drive, in a car park or outside work for 80% of its lifespan?

The answer for most of us is currently ‘convenience’. Being able to jump in your car at will and take as much luggage and as many people and family pets as is safe and comfortable to do so is a huge bonus. Yet people used to say the same about keeping their own library of books or a physical music collection, until technology made it a lot more convenient to carry it all around on a smartphone.

The ‘sharing economy’ is changing customer behaviour by disintermediating whole sectors. Automotive transport is no exception. Uber recently stated that it was aiming to make self-driving taxis ‘as reliable as running water’ while Elon Musk, founder of electric car manufacturer Tesla, has reportedly said that driving is simply too dangerous for humans.

Now that the UK Government has decided that there is no legal barrier to the testing of automated (driverless) cars on our roads, with domestic regulations set to be reviewed by next summer, it may not be long before we can simply summon a driverless pod to take us shopping or to work instead of owning our own car.

In terms of technology PR, there will be an increase in opportunities but also lots to think about in terms of reputation management. Clearly there are some vitally important questions to be asked, not least about the impact of this vision on drivers’ jobs, tax and payment structures, road safety, the public transport system and service reliability. But next time you battle to walk down a road where the pavement is invaded by commuter cars, ask yourself whether the alternative is really sustainable over the longer term.

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