Fear Of The Future: The Problem With Futurology

Originally written for Professional Manager

One of the most spectacular failures in the history of futurology happened recently – and you were almost certainly a part of it in some way. No-one predicted a majority Conservative government – not even David Cameron, who confessed that he’d spent polling day writing a letter of resignation – yet that is what we got. Still no-one has really explained why the polls were so wrong – perhaps we’ll never know.

If the UK General Election proved anything it’s that we simply can’t predict the future anymore. The rate of technological change is dizzying and the resulting disruption in our behaviour – how we eat, move, vote and drive – makes predicting what is going to happen next increasingly difficult. Yet there are careers, sectors, entire industries predicated on what might happen in five or ten year’s time.

Two emails recently caught my eye. One was asking me to lock in my energy prices until 2018; the other offering me a new flat-rate two-year mortgage – we’re being offered ways to future-proof ourselves at every turn. Why? Because we don’t know what’s going to happen – and we may even fear it. There may not have been much obvious enthusiasm for another five years of David Cameron’s government, but the consensus seems to be that voters decided they preferred the devil they think they know. In the automotive industry I get the impression that, as Donald Rumsfeld memorably put it, there are known unknowns but there are also unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know that we don’t know.

I’m an early adopter – I like to try things out when they come along, partly out of curiosity and partly because it’s my job to form opinions on new technologies. One is Liftshare – a network that allows people doing similar journeys to buddy up and save petrol. Another is Rentecarlo – a network that allows me to rent out my private car for profit. I’ve received precisely zero requests on either, but I think that will change as networks become more integrated and data more easily shared. These networks are in their infancy and I expect them grow in the same way that the poster boy for this tech did.

Uber is a lift-sharing app that no-one really saw coming and is changing the face of the minicab and rental industry. It’s simple in that you bypass the private hire companies and go straight to the drivers. They may be a private hire, they may not. But your ride arrives more quickly, with less fuss and it tends to be cheaper. Private-hire companies that may have existed for decades are in danger of swept away by Uber – an app that didn’t exist five years ago – if they don’t adapt quickly.

But the company isn’t stopping there. Uber says all of its cars will be autonomous as soon as is viable. Google is working on the tech; industry rumour suggests Apple is building a car. Disruptive innovation is rarely a friend to established businesses – unless they can ride the wave of new technologies. Trying to read the runes in automotive requires a journalist to play with the new gadgetry finding its way into cars; downloading apps, pairing devices and flicking through more menus than a vegetarian in Germany.

The UK car industry’s annual jamboree at testing ground Millbrook recently allowed manufacturers to show off their best and brightest new cars to the assembled press pack. The advances in car tech visible at such events – some on prototypes and concepts but mostly on-the-road now or in the near future – never fail to astound.

It’s really not that long since you have to juggle a set of discs, to be manually loaded in a tray somewhere in the boot of your car, if you wanted satellite navigation in a different country. It’s not so long since you had a choice of FM and AM on car radios; since a third-party CD player had to be fitted at your local garage if you wanted to hear your favourite band in crystal clarity. Now you can get live or as-good-as-live updates on all traffic everywhere. Not only can your satnav relay that information, it can also understand it and change your route accordingly.

Or you can watch live television, answer emails, send tweets – all using voice control. That change happened in a little over five years; where might it take us five years hence? Self-driving cars, EVs, increasingly sophisticated interfaces, data crunching, more leisure and improved communication seem to be the consensus. If smartphones are a template for the pace of market-driven technological change – the most basic telephony handsets to wearables in barely 15 years – what might be about to happen in automotive is startling.

My sense from all the cars I’ve driven recently is that, if you want to know where car technology is going in the very near future, look to your mobile phone. Not merely in terms of the design and interface – there’s little point in duplicating all those apps, all that data and personalisation in your car when it already exists in your handset. Your smartphone will be the key to open the door literally and metaphorically, to a universe of data and tools and apps in the latter case. And your mobile contract – locked in to a service provider, feeding all your data to your apps and offering an increasingly walled-garden of software choices – is instructive in how we’re increasingly choosing to operate in these sectors.

It’s important to note that this may not all be a land of milk and honey and the ramifications may be difficult for the fleet industry to get to grips with. While new opportunities will open up, some industries may be headed for the exit ramp. Just how the road and power networks would cope with an explosion of smartcars hasn’t really been worked out – and that’s one area the private sector can’t drive without public investment.

And while 3G and 4G have revolutionised the way we access our information and entertainment, the likelihood is that 30m autonomous cars exchanging terabytes of data and streaming the latest Games Of Thrones episode are going to take quite a toll on our clogged e-networks.

There are rather more fundamental issues here too. If no-one crashes a car what does that mean for the insurance industry? What will happen to the oil industry if no-one buys petrol any more – and how will our creaking national grid cope when everyone plugs in their car at night? If no-one is injured in a car or on the roads, what about medical insurance? If no cars are damaged, what of mechanics? If getting a ride is as easy as pressing a button on your watch, what of car-rental companies? And if all cars drive themselves who trains learner drivers? Mans taxis? Drives buses? Who regulates these new markets – and can the state ever react quickly enough?

More to the point why would anyone choose to buy a lump of metal that spends most of its time sitting on their front doorstep and loses two thirds of its value within three years? Will private-car ownership make the slightest sense in years to come?

The answers to these known – and unknown – unknowns might be a few short years away, yet they are still unclear to us. That’s the problem with futurology – as Ed Miliband found out to his cost, it’s usually wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.