Giving way to the wealthy - faster commutes for those prepared to pay

Autonomous vehicles could create a preferential system where people can pay more to have better road access.

Autonomous vehicles could see privileged road access for those prepared to pay a premium, say Monash University ethicists Professor Robert Sparrow and Dr Mark Howard.

Online auctions could determine who gets through an intersection first and faster routes reserved for higher-paying customers, Professor Sparrow told the Australian Intelligent Transport Systems Summit in Sydney recently.

Autonomous vehicles offer an opportunity to apply free market principles and create ‘market in mobility’ by pricing road access for more efficient use of an increasingly scarce resource.

But increased efficiency could come at significant social, ethical and political cost, he warns.

An equal place where all users have the same rights and subject to the same laws – no matter what type of car they drive –  could become a place where the wealthy can buy their right of way.

“The logic of the free market, when unleashed on urban transport, points firmly to pricing journey times — and therefore access to space on the roads — in accordance with the ability to pay,” Professor Sparrow says.

“The cars of those who paid lower prices could be made to slow down and move aside in order to allow the cars of those who had paid higher prices to pass them, making the mobility privileges purchased by the wealthy all-too-obvious to the poor.”

In feudal times ‘commoners’ were often expected, or forced by law, to make way for the nobility on roads.

In the future, algorithms will replace expectations of ‘giving way to the wealthy’ with technology determining traffic flows that provide a daily reminder of someone’s place in society.

The prospect of a ‘market in mobility’ would also lead to roads being private, rather than public space, effectively controlled by a small number of companies operating fleets of vehicles.

“It would also result in private corporations controlling access to a good — mobility — that is itself essential to social and political participation, entrenching the divide between rich and poor.

“It’s something governments and policymakers need to carefully consider in their quest for more efficient road networks.”