SOMETHING important happened in Spain this week, and not just the continuing revelations of the depths of its economic crisis. Volvo announced that on a motorway just outside Barcelona a convoy of four driverless cars drove 123 miles on a public road, among other road users, perfectly safely.
The vehicles travelled at 53 miles an hour, demonstrating a technology that could be in commercial use in less than a decade. This first public test was a collaboration between Volvo and British technology firm Ricardo UK, with funding from the European Commission, not always an obvious bastion of innovation but here clearly on the right road. Linda Wahlstrom of Volvo said “people think that autonomous driving is science fiction, but the fact is that the technology is already here.”
I remember when sat-navs seemed almost miraculous, but the possibilities that driverless cars open up are far larger. At City A.M.’s investment conference last week, Tim Guinness of Guinness Asset Management mentioned it as one of his top disruptive technologies to watch in the near future. Driverless cars have the potential to save thousands of lives every year in the UK alone, not to mention bringing greater ease of transport and many environmental gains. But perhaps their most immediate benefit, even as the economic news turns darker by the day, is to remind us of how exciting our future could still be.
Sometimes, when all the technological advances seem to be about marginal improvements in our mobile phones, it can seem like there is nothing left to invent. Driverless cars show us a future that is still rich with possibility. They are just one example of the better world we still need to build for ourselves, and that is hurrying towards us if only we can hold our nerve. Last week, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship became the first ever private space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station, another milestone that promises more wonders to come.
Thanks to Ricardo UK, Britain is part of the driverless car revolution, and though we don’t always notice it, we are part of the coming age of private space enterprise as well. An Institute of Directors report published this month finds that our space sector employs 25,000 people, and is on course to employ 100,000 by 2020. But it also argues that, to reach its full potential, Britain needs to bring its rulebook into the twenty-first century and then commit to a really breathtaking infrastructure project: a UK spaceport.
A future of wonders is not guaranteed. There are always people unwilling to look up to the horizon, eager to handicap those who run ahead too fast with the weight of unnecessary rules. That lack of imagination threatens our hopes far more than the current economic malaise. If we lose our sense of ambition for the future, it may never happen.
Marc Sidwell is City A.M.’s business features editor.