AUTOMATION is being increasingly talked about. There is a recognition that it is coming, perhaps faster than we think, and that it will transform our lives. There are fears that it will significantly alter patterns of employment, in the worst case destroy large numbers of jobs, along with all the societal upheaval and individual pain that will entail. There is also a vague appreciation that, if managed correctly, it could present opportunities.

But not much policy work is being done on the detail. What will these changes look like, and what can we do now to prepare? In part this is because the subject is so large, and the directions it may take are unpredictable.

By focusing on one area of this coming revolution we can perhaps better explore the details of what it may mean for us as individuals and for society, and how we might be able to set the agenda in our favour.

Throughout history developments in modes of transport have driven surges in economic growth. From the digging of the canal infrastructure in the 1790s, the roll out of the railways in the 1840s, the rise of the automobile in the early 1900s and the expansion of commercial air travel from the 1950s onwards.

The growth of the internet since the 1990s, although transporting information rather than people, has been the latest boon to economic development.

Thanks to automation we now stand on the cusp of the next revolution in transport, and the nations that position themselves to best take advantage of this opportunity, and learn how to turn to their advantage its potential downsides, are those who will thrive through the 21st century and beyond.

Autonomous vehicles are technically already possible. Their roll-out could come faster than we expect. The implications for our individual lives and society as a whole are potentially profound. Impacting much more than simply how we get from A to B.

As well as challenges there will be a myriad of opportunities.

As with all significant technological developments we can no more halt the automation of transport than we can uninvent the internet or air travel. Both have revolutionised how we live, but both are fraught with risk if not managed properly. The debate isn’t about whether they are a good idea or not, it’s about how we prepare to manage them, rather than let them manage us.

Over the course of next week I’ll be writing about different aspects of how self-drive may impact society, and how we may want to rise to that challenge.

Many more questions will be raised than answers given, but let’s start a debate that may lead us to being better prepared to deal with these challenges and opportunities than we might otherwise be. I’ll look at how autonomous vehicles will impact the cost of transport, city design and energy networks. What they may mean for inequalities in society and how we can configure the industries of the future to take advantage of this revolution.