Saturday 14 December 2019

There's little future in 2040 plan

With a lack of charging infrastructure, motorists feel electric cars are a risk
With a lack of charging infrastructure, motorists feel electric cars are a risk
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

So did you have a good National Development Plan? Did your area get a few quid? A new bit of motorway? A stop on a light rail network? From a technology perspective, there wasn't much in the 280-page tome.

But I was struck by the absence of a major transportation issue: electric and autonomous vehicles.

While transportation infrastructure is a primary theme in the €116bn document, there was nothing about what will almost certainly be the biggest shift in transportation habits by 2040.

It is a shame that middle-aged Irish planners appear to regard this still as some sort of science fiction rather than an incoming normal facet of life.

Self-driving cars are not an issue of convenience or consumerism. Thousands of taxi, bus and train drivers are now effectively on a redundancy clock without any acknowledgement from the Government. There are major ramifications for cities, in particular.

Virtually all major car manufacturers are prioritising research and development into autonomous vehicles, with testing under way in several US states.

But because this is an issue about planning, and not about placating industrial lobby organisations or regional voting groups, it doesn't get even a glancing reference in our Government's vision of Ireland in 2040.

This is a pity. This issue, more than any other, will accelerate the introduction of robots visually performing visible, essential tasks that are currently operated exclusively by humans.

But robots will not exist in Ireland in 2040, according to the Government's document.

Despite a current wave of job replacements under way in manufacturing and labour-intensive industries, policies around the effect of automation are not to be found anywhere in Ireland's future plan.

The consulting firm PwC recently reported that €48bn will be added to the Irish economy as a result of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) over the next 12 years.

The adoption of technologies that cut out humans altogether will contribute to this, according to PwC, with Irish GDP set to be 11.6pc higher by 2030.

Retail, accommodation and food services sectors will see the biggest impact, with health and education close behind.

Big retailers and manufacturers have already made much of their transformation, with Amazon now using tens of thousands of 'Kiva' robots in its warehouses, which replace the need for humans to fetch products from shelves.

Call centres - of which we have more than a few in Ireland - are next in line, with robotic agents being phased in at present.

This is all being sped along by companies such as Microsoft, which is releasing software that allows online customer service robots initiate, co-ordinate, and confirm calls completely by themselves.

White-collar professions such as accounting are under fire, too. Bread-and-butter book-keeping tasks such as expenses and tax returns are expected to become completely automated in the next ten years, according to a recent Oxford study.

Ireland will be affected more than many other parts of Europe, according to PwC.

To be fair, it might be argued that specific points of industrial strategy around this are harder to present in a firm fashion by any present-day government, especially if automation occurs over a period of ten to 20 years.

Even still, if robots take jobs as quickly as some say they will, the concept of a universal basic income should be something that is debated at a societal level.

Some of what is contemplated in this area of industrial development may be accounted for through a 'new' €500m "disruptive technologies innovation fund", set to be "implemented through the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and its agencies, working with other research funding bodies".

But there is little more that's specific to this fund, so it could probably be spent on anything.

There is another issue curiously absent from the National Development Plan - electric vehicles.

One of the reasons that electric cars have been such a flop in Ireland - with fewer than 5,000 sold (an astonishingly meagre figure) over the last four years - is a lack of infrastructure and incentives.

Put simply, you're taking a real risk of running empty when attempting to drive from Dublin to, say, Mayo.

With very few recharging points between cities, motorists have decided it's not worth the risk.

The Government has done nothing about this, leaving it to the ESB and a few forecourt chains to lead investment. This hasn't worked.

Other European countries have taken a very different approach. A growing list of cities around Europe are proposing outright bans on diesel cars for environmental and health reasons. In Norway, only electric cars will be sold after 2025.

Last year, 20pc of new cars bought there were electric. Over 30pc were hybrid. Norway arrived there by offering real incentives. For example, electric cars get access to bus lanes and free parking in cities. They also pay no road tolls.

There are other ways that the Government could boost adoption of electric cars here, if it really wanted to.

State bodies, institutes and agencies purchase cars every year.

The Government's plan does refer to this, with an aspiration to "transition the car transport fleet to electricity and providing additional charging infrastructure" and "the necessity to progressively electrify transport systems ... to new technologies such as electric vehicles".

But it reserves just €20m per year for all of this over the next ten years, an insignificant sum. It's hard to conclude anything other than a lack of any real interest at government level in introducing alternatives to petrol and diesel engines at a mass market level.

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