“I thought for a long time that self-driving cars would make driving licenses superfluous, but now I am convinced that it must be for a completely different reason,” writes Jan Adriaenssens (imec).
I still hope that my daughters won’t need a driver’s license anymore. But I started thinking differently why. For a long time I thought self-driving cars would make driving licenses obsolete, but now I’m convinced it must be for a whole other reason. And then I refer to a social media post by Marco te Brömmelstroet, also known as the cycling teacher: “We don’t need driverless cars. We urgently need more car-free drivers.
When I read a blog post by Dries Buytaert, founder of open source web software Drupal, in 2016, there was one sentence that always stuck with me. He wrote in it that he hoped his children, then aged 6 and 8, would never need a driver’s license because safe, self-driving cars would be driving everywhere. Now that my daughters are that age, I hope the same for them, but for a very different reason. The autonomous car undeniably has many advantages in terms of safety and comfort. However, I do not see it as a panacea for our future mobility.
Every day, professionally and personally, I feel a need to revalorize what is called “the built environment”. I prefer to call it ‘the inhabited bowl’. Before the general rise of the automobile – that is to say three or four generations less than one would think – it was an environment where people visited very often. Children playing, neighbors chatting, a weekly market…: this game in our inhabited areas has become very much under pressure.
If you look at how we have arranged this space for car traffic, it is not surprising. If you were to rethink this, you would automatically encourage more people to walk around, meet up, or use other forms of transportation. The Covid pandemic has been a unique laboratory for this, with cities here and abroad redistributing their public space in favor of cyclists and pedestrians. And there are also very nice projects where, for example, parking spaces are replaced by terraces, greenery or benches. Municipal architect Marianne Lefever recently told me the linguistic interpretation of the words “road” and “street”. For her, a road is a way to get from one point to another, while a street is also a place to stay. I find it essential to retain or restore this “street feeling” when designing future mobility.
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The car can no longer be taken for granted in our populated areas. For many of us, this may seem unthinkable. But the figures show that the number of driving licenses issued in Belgium is decreasing every year and that young people in particular are driving less and less. If we can maintain these trends as this generation grows, we may already be very close to the future described earlier.
Note: I remain convinced that technology will play a vital role in solving just about every societal challenge. But then we need to clearly define the prerequisites and starting points. For example: how to find an optimal balance between individual and collective mobility? And between clean vehicles and subsystems?
Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, argues that the most developed countries are characterized not by the poorest people owning a car, but by the richest people using public transport. Japan is still a leader in this area for me. With trains that even cover long distances with a frequency of ten minutes and are almost always on time. Such solutions will be essential to move us from one inhabited bowl to another. I also clearly see a future for self-driving cars for those longer journeys. And if the car then largely disappears from the inhabited space, other modes of transport can become important there. In short: it would be a blessing for the sustainability of our mobility if we found solutions that no longer require a driving license.
Jan Adriaenssens is Director of Public Technology at imec. It studies the role that technology can constructively play in society.
This contribution also appeared on the website of Beste-ID, a foundation which aims to strengthen intellectual exchanges in the Netherlands and Flanders.