Will driverless cars and unmanned drones be adopted by developing countries first?

Will the adoption of driverless cars and drones boost the economies of developing nations before they make a significant impact on Western economies?

Developed nations are leading the development of driverless cars. They are partially legal in California, Nevada and California. Gothenburg will embark on a pilot scheme in 2017 and Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry have plans for self-directed pods to run this year.

However, nations with highly developed road networks and high levels of private ownership of driven vehicles will be understandably cautious. Years of testing will be required to satisfy sceptical legislators. Other countries are less encumbered.

In his 2014 book Rush Hour, how 500 million commuters survive the daily journey to work, Iain Gately makes this point.

“It is possible, however, that autonomous autos might be adopted first in countries that don’t have giant road networks or a driving culture already in place. Africa may have them by the platoon before they’re common in California, or indeed, Bishop’s Waltham. According to [innovations strategist] Chunka Mui, “the driverless car might… save the developing countries from ever having to replicate the car centric infrastructure that has emerged in most western countries”. In the same way that many developing nations went from having no telephones to mobiles, leapfrogging landlines altogether, so countries that are building new towns or highways for the first time could go straight to driverless”

What would be the benefit to those countries?

Construction would be cheaper. Driverless cars are less subject to human error so traffic lanes can be narrower.  Multi lane highways could be built for less than the usual price. There would be no need to produce and erect signs, street lights or traffic lights.

Traffic would be faster and there would be less hold ups. Without human error the stopping distances between travelling cars could be shorter so traffic would move faster. The ‘caterpillar effect’ of faster slow downs than speed-ups would be eliminated (this effect causes jams and tailbacks). Additionally, each car would travel in the slipstream of the car in front, which makes for greater fuel efficiency.  No need to spend energy on headlights either.

A nation with few qualified drivers needn’t be held back. Driverless cars cut out the cost to government and individuals of driving lessons and official tests and licences.

The speed and efficiency of travel for humans is as valuable to economies as the speed with which data can be transferred via the more virtual (information super) highway. Some developing countries might see driverless cars as being as desirable as increasing Internet connectivity.

Cost effective distribution of goods is also valuable to a thriving economy. Amazon’s testing of unmanned drones for that purpose put them on the radar last year. Tim Harford, the FT’s Undercover Economist, was prompted to write about drones, launched from shop rooftops, reinvigorating the High Street. If all that seems far-fetched, the use of drones launched from the top of lorries to go the final mile to deliver goods in rural locations (with tight country roads) might seem more likely. At least one distribution company is working on that idea.

Drones aren’t just about deliveries. They have so many other uses too. These include forensic photography, filmmaking, inspecting architecture, the monitoring of volcanoes, fire fighting and lifeguarding. These are just a few of the applications already dreamt up. Possibilities are plenty.

However, UK and US legislators, as they are starting to do with driverless cars, have to impose very tight restrictions in the name of public safety. A near miss between a drone and a passenger airline in 2014 demonstrated the potentially catastrophic consequences of unchecked drone use (jet engines are routinely tested by firing frozen chickens into them – but drones are made of sterner stuff and have power sources).

Consequently, drones cannot be flown in built up areas in the USA and UK (at least not without hard to come by permission). This means a lot of the opportunities for their economies to benefit are no longer practically possible.

What are they missing out on? The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International believe the use of drones, governed by only light legal restrictions, would add $13.6bn to the US economy. It would also create 70,000 jobs.  No small beer.

That potential might be of interest to countries with less built up areas and less aviation.

Is it possible then that the first testing grounds for driverless cars and unmanned drones will be developing countries interested in the economic promise they hold?

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