When I first heard about Google’s driverless car, my heart sank: here was another example of the way technology was writing mankind out of a meaningful future. From a human behaviour point of view, it was a good idea to invent a car that would make road rage impossible; sensors would ensure the driverless vehicles maintain a safe distance from other cars. Considering people’s attachment to their own motor pods have much to do with their being able to drive their own ‘baby’, driverless vehicle could possibly also put them off the auto obsession and make public transport more attractive.
But what about the commercial drivers who rely on taking goods and passengers from A to B to make a living? Driveless vehicles would make them redundant. In an overpopulated world, isn’t it ridiculous to introduce a technology that removes an employment opportunity just when there are more and more people looking for jobs?
However, this doesn’t apply to Hong Kong. Forget about the taxi vs Uber debate; let’s have a fleet of electrically-powered, driverless taxis ASAP. No cheating, no speeding, no roadside pollution, no prolonged queueing during shift changes. People can simply log a call and the nearest available taxi will be automatically assigned to pick them up.
All the commercial establishments, from printers to food suppliers who are now short of drivers to deliver their products because the filthy rich are paying them top dollars to be their chauffeurs will then be able recruit the younger members of the taxi trade. Meanwhile, the older drivers who now have passengers fearing for their health and eyesight can switch to safer occupations as building caretakers or restaurant staff. Unemployment may be a concern in many places, but here in Hong Kong, the job market is so tight many a construction worker is well over 50 and still in high demand.
If the taxi fleet is automated, the roads will be much clearer because there won’t be empty taxis constantly cruising for customers, wasting loads of energy in the process. The current problem, of course, is not so much a new service competing against the taxi trade, but the government’s unwillingness to lose the support of the many cast-iron votes it gets from the taxi component of the transport constituency.
Hong Kong has no sensible transport policy because it is under the pressure of cast-iron votes to protect their interests. Hence the construction of more new roads and the failure to introduce electronic road pricing. The push to extend the MTR network is all well and good, but officials who are chauffeured around town have no idea of the human congestion on MTR trains and don’t appreciate urban planning that will disperse employment opportunities so half the population aren’t jammed in train carriages at peak hours heading in the same direction.
If there were a sensible transport policy, there wouldn’t be any need to fret over spending billions of dollars to build an underground car park at West Kowloon Cultural District. Instead, we have a former government planner who thinks it’s better to scrap the low-carbon trams so more space would be available for gas-guzzling, polluting cars.
Said planner now heads a ‘think tank’. What does that say about Hong Kong?