Imagine it is 2035. You wake up and look out of the window. What do you see?
Do you see a road full of vehicles, without drivers, transporting people who are working, eating, and even sleeping? Are some of these empty, returning to their base after dropping people off at work? Or, are the roads emptier than how you remembered, because more and more of your friends are using advancements in communication technologies to work from home?
While no one can predict the future, studies are needed to explore what the future may look like to help guide today's policy and investment decisions.
Exploring alternative transport futures and the key technologies which will drive them was the focus of a recent RAND Europe study. We developed three different future scenarios, exploring what the future may look like in terms of transport in 2035. We focused on how six important emerging technologies could impact the UK's transport network. We then used these scenarios to identify priority policy and innovation investments that are robust across all scenarios.
The three future scenarios varied from higher-than-forecast economic growth and a widespread use of autonomous vehicles, to moderate economic growth with less travel due to advances in communication technologies, and, finally, advances in technologies, but uneven distribution due to increasing income inequality.
With so much talk about the exciting future of autonomous vehicles, it can be easy to get carried away and identify them as a priority area for public investment. However, our study showed that investment in the next generation of telecommunication services — such as super-fast broadband capable of spectacular feats like downloading the entire “Star Wars” films boxset in under a second, and big data, “apps” and intelligent processing — are better public investments across the range of future scenarios.
Making sure these technologies are priorities for investment would ensure that people (and goods) are able to use future transport services efficiently, and support the implementation of new autonomous and connected services in the transport network, such as autonomous vehicles. It will also allow more people to work, shop and access health services from the comfort of their own home. This could have a profound impact on the transport network and society more generally.
While the potential impact of autonomous vehicles on travel and society more generally may be substantial, the study identified a number of safety and regulatory barriers that would need to be addressed before they become widespread. At the same time, other policy concerns, such as possibilities for increased travel and congestion and loss of jobs, will need to be considered.
What is clear from the development of these scenarios is that the future is uncertain. No one can know how the world will look in 2035 — what will be the key technologies that influence how people work, shop, access healthcare, take holidays or ship goods, and what travel will be generated from these activities? Moreover, governments cannot be expected to “pick the winner” in the technology stakes, but rather they should invest in technologies that are robust across the range of future possibilities and develop policies that deliver the best outcomes for society.
In an ideal world, the vision for 2035 is one where people look out their windows and see technologies that have been able to support travel in a way that is good for society.
Charlene Rohr is a senior research leader at RAND Europe. She has led the “Examining Future Transport Scenarios to Drive Innovation in the UK” study, which explored the impact of six technologies on UK transport and wider society in 2035 through developing three future scenarios.
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