Glenn Lyons, Mott MacDonald Professor of Future Mobility, UWE Bristol, discusses how ‘emulsifying’ those with opposing views on a seemingly polarising topic might help deliver better policy

A year ago, social media was awash with developments, speculation, opinion and hype on autonomous vehicles – particularly driverless cars – where two polarised camps of opinion were forming. Depending upon the content of your social network information flows (shaped probably by your own world view), you would either have been party to:

  • a sense of excitement and optimism that technological innovation was going to change the world and deliver splendid benefits (with dollar signs flashing); or
  • a sense of irritation, frustration and despair that the ‘tech bros’ were pushing a solution looking for a problem that was going to exacerbate mobility challenges.

Fast forward to 2020: in the midst of a global pandemic, societal lockdown and shockwaves running through the mobility system, autonomous vehicle news (in my Twitter feed at least) is conspicuous by its absence. As a result, it felt unfortunate timing – even back in early April – to be launching a new report entitled “Driverless cars - a great opportunity for society? Final report of the Driverless Cars Emulsion initiative”. Who was going to care about driverless cars now, when so many more pressing matters for transport were starting to present themselves?

You may be wondering the very same yourself if you’ve read this far and may be ready to abort. I’d quite understand. However, I ask you to give this article a chance and read on to discover why I believe the report may be more important than ever.

Mixing oil and water

I came up with the idea of the Driverless Cars Emulsion (DCE) early last year. I was very conscious that the lovers and haters of the most divisive aspect of autonomous vehicles, namely driverless cars (DCs), were not mixing. They were like oil and water. Each constituency was existing in its own echo chamber. People who were excitedabout driverless cars went to one type of conference. People who were exercisedabout them went to another. This seemed distinctly unproductive. If DCs are going to become a significant feature of society:

  • the evangelists need to listen to the opponents to better understand what could go wrong in terms of outcomes - in the interests of trying to avoid that; and
  • the opponents need to contribute to discussion with the evangelists to avoid shared culpability if things do go wrong because they turned their back on the topic.

The DCE initiative was taken forward in partnership with LandorLINKS and with the support of several sponsors. It took the form of six national workshops that engaged over 100 participants, representing a mix of DC evangelists, opponents and agnostics. As the lead facilitator and in the design of the workshop format, my job was to be an emulsifier: helping the oil and water to mix together to form an emulsion of open minds and shared thinking.

Dystopia and utopia help open minds

The core proposition explored in each workshop was that ‘driverless cars are a great opportunity for society’. By assuming that DCs would bea significant feature of mobility in 2050 (rather than debating whether they mightbe), participants (in mixed groups) were asked to create plausible utopias and plausible dystopias for transport and society in 2050. They were then asked to explore what the medium-term obstacles, risks and opportunities would be in going from the present to each of these future states. The aim was to surface important principles that today’s policymakers and influencers should abide by to help avoid moving towards a dystopia and instead help to realise positive outcomes from DCs, ifthey are coming.


You’d need to take a look at the report to properly appreciate what went on, what emerged and what we learnt. Here are some of the key points:

  • Although we were considering DCs, with an outcome-focuseddiscussion the emphasis was on exploring existing strengths and weaknesses of the wholemobility system and how it could and should support society – and then in turn determining the partDCs could and should play.
  • People acknowledged that they had underestimated how many complicated issues needed to be addressed to progress towards a DC future. This helps explain why, by the end of the workshops, over twice as many of our participants had become more negative than had become more positive about the proposition ‘DCs are a great opportunity for society’.
  • To address the principles identified will require a new strength of public sector governance that surpasses much to date. The private sector alone cannot deliver a fair system of services.
  • Wicked problems, such as what DCs mean for the future of mobility, require collaboration where hype and evangelising, as well as doom mongering, are constructively challenged.
  • No flashy pictures of DCs were used in the initiative or in its report. We are well past the stage where ‘gloss’ about the future is enough. This has been an initiative centred upon the importance of structured engagement: opening minds, shared learning and the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Transport Planners are change agents

We are in a period of humanity’s existence – amplified by COVID-19 - where a state of flux and, in turn, deep uncertainty exist. Our decisions will shape the future for good or ill. How we handle the matter of DCs is an excellent test of our collective ability to improve society – for everyone. I do hope you’ll take a look at the report and consider the merits of its approach for both DCs and other areas.

Read the final report of the Driverless Cars Emulsion initiative

Driverless Cars are sure to be part of the conversation for Transport Planning Day 2020 as we look at the role of transport planners in tackling climate change and creating a sustainable, healthy future.

Find out about the TPS plans for transport planning day 2020


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