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Electric Dreams

By Professor Nick Ellis, April 2021

Significant transformations are predicted for personal mobility, the automotive industry and logistics, thanks to ongoing innovations in connected and automated vehicles (CAVs). Established car manufacturers are developing CAVs along with newer car makers like Tesla, plus so-called disruptors like Google.

While we are getting increasingly used to kit such as proximity sensors, cruise control and automatic lights, CAVs are much more revolutionary. With technology becoming more in control, theoretically, we should have fewer accidents, move around faster and be free to use our time for other things while becoming passengers for every journey.

But getting to this scenario will not be easy. As well as having the necessary technology in place, we will need appropriate regulations and infrastructure, and consumer and business users must be reassured over safety concerns.

The policy perspective

The UK government has stated that CAV technologies have the potential to offer benefits for increased safety and accessibility. From a policy perspective, new technologies are likely to have a major impact on traditional mobility business models and the passenger and freight services markets. There is expected to be a change in the vehicle ownership model along with local authorities and large organisations utilising CAVs to provide services. Internationally, regulators are attempting to define new rules to control the functionality of these exciting technologies.

There is therefore much at stake in being able to plot the future growth of this innovation, but with this comes great complexity in making sense of how business ecosystems and networks will evolve.

The technology is still emerging, with most activity being conducted by car manufacturing firms in partnership with universities and government. Even at this early stage of market emergence, differing opinions are being adopted on the societal impact of CAVs. How private strategy, public policy and society adjust to (and often simultaneously generate) these interacting forces needs to be considered holistically. To capture the market complexity, we need to move beyond single viewpoints. Social and sustainable innovation must be included alongside technical and economic discourses. So, we need to explore the perceptions of not only firms and technology entrepreneurs as market shapers, but a host of other network members.

Future behaviours

The importance of this topic for understanding our changing world has been recognised in a University of Western Australia (UWA) Research Collaboration Award plus an Alcoa Visiting Professor Grant to me as a co-investigator on a joint project with Professors Sharon Purchase, Daniel Schepis and Brett Smith of UWA. The funding has facilitated data collection in 2019 and 2020 for the study of the CAV network in the UK and Australia, and ongoing data analysis.

We are attempting to understand how future behaviours may be shaped in response to the visions of stakeholders and in anticipation of possible socio-technical forces. Managers’ discourse will be analysed to see how it can construct identities within networks, help set market boundaries and legitimise actions. This is an approach that draws on my prior research published in the leading journals Organization Studies and Industrial Marketing Management.

Participants encompass a wide variety of ecosystem representatives, including those from: car manufacturers of both traditional and electric vehicles; CAV manufacturers; trade associations; government departments, both national and regional; research centres, university engineers and economists; innovation consultants; not-for-profit organisations, including disability advocates; insurers; police; public transport providers; logistics firms; and prototype CAV owners. So far, interviews have been conducted with 15 expert stakeholders in the UK from a range of such organisations, and a further 15 similar participants in Australia. These two countries are useful to compare due to the generally accepted view that the UK is much further along the road of CAV adoption than Australia, partly due to the UK still having its own car manufacturing sector.

Interviews discuss the potential benefits and risks of CAV technology and invite participants to describe possible future scenarios for the development of this technology, and the critical developments that must occur in the ecosystem for these scenarios to play out.

As a research team we will be continuing our analysis and hope to report in more detail by the end of the year.

More information on Professor Ellis' research interests.