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Driverless cars and a look back at the transition to a post-capitalist economy

How Europe's cities could use public driverless cars to transform the economy.

Pete Ritchie
29 February 2016
FirebirdII.jpg

FirebirdII, an early car with driverless tech, by Karrmann, CC BY-SA 3.0,

'E pur si muove'.

‘And yet it moves’ – Galileo’s best-known words – could have been the slogan of choice for the first driverless cars; but in the end his ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’ became more apposite in what became a defining moment in postcapitalist transition.

None of this of course would have been possible without his other legacy – the Galileo system of global positioning satellites which eased into position in 2016, providing a highly accurate public domain navigation system for the new technology.

As Apple prepared the launch of its ill-fated IGo towards the end of that decade, cities across Europe developed the Compact on Public Mobility, based on the premise that mobility – like water, healthcare, food and education – was a public good too important to be left to an oligopoly of global companies.

Their collective initial order for a million WeGo self-driving electric vehicles, using a combination of European Central Bank quantitative easing and a public bond issue, was the 21st century equivalent of the public share issue for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1818.

The circular seats of these first public cars was key to the rapid change in social norms. Of course to begin with most people carried on driving their own cars – and although this became seen as increasingly eccentric and antisocial, people could still be found driving cars on country roads into the 2040s.

In the first few years, some people treated the WeGo like a taxi – setting the slider to ‘solo’ rather than ‘share’. But for the millennial generation getting from A to B quicker, cheaper and more sociably than a bus, sharing just seemed obvious, and going via C wasn’t a big deal. Millions of families suddenly found getting to work and picking up the kids from nursery so much easier.

There were much wider transformations in the 2020s as a result. No-one went just to pick up stuff any more – the WeGos made it clear they were quite capable of doing that on their own. So the big box supermarkets disappeared – the WeGos just went to the depots early morning and collected people’s orders. People still went shopping for fresh food – but because they wanted to, not because they had to.

And of course by then cities had started to change shape. 9 out of 10 vehicles were no longer needed: most of the WeGos rolled out at night to charging lots. The car parks went first; then the street furniture – speed signs, directions, parking meters. Then people started planting apple and orange trees in the middle of suburban streets, then whole streets narrowed or disappeared. Cities became more densely populated, but much less crowded. Overall, despite the obliging WeGos, people walked and cycled more, not less.

And all those jobs? It wasn’t just the taxi drivers who had to change – the traffic wardens never found a WeGo on a yellow line, the police never had to do one for speeding, and the sharp fall in road traffic accidents reduced the need for ambulances, insurance companies and car repairs. But as always people found new and better things to do – some as urban farmers on all the new land, some in the children’s play villages which sprang up on car-free streets, and some at the retro out of town tracks where people could get to drive the old dumb cars as fast as possible. And of course there were plenty of jobs looking after the horses which were quite a novelty in the city back then..

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