Book review: Ghost Road, by Anthony M Townsend

Many drivers will be particularly cherishing their cars just now as they afford a personalised and secure way of getting around amid fears about contracting Covid-19 on public transport in this new coronavirus age. But all that is familiar about automobiles will be blown apart if the predictions laid out in this exhilarating but daunting drive into the near future prove correct.

Ghost Road

Anthony Townsend sets out how our lives and streetscapes could be entirely transformed once we have become redundant behind the wheel, in what he predicts will be “our most intense and intimate encounter with artificial intelligence in the physical world.”

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are on the cusp of revolutionising mobility for all, but they also threaten to flood the roads with far more traffic. I’ve travelled in some of the types of AVs Townsend features, albeit with technicians on board, so I thought I knew how far the technology had advanced. But that was two years ago, and, as the author relates, Google offshoot Waymo’s fleet of entirely driverless taxis are now carrying passengers in Arizona, their steering wheels turning as if by an invisible chauffeur. Closer to home, commuters are due to be whisked across the Forth Road Bridge in an autonomous Stagecoach bus within months.

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Marvelling at what I read, I looked up Townsend’s references to the latest AV developments with growing anticipation, such as Toyota’s e-Palette minibuses, which were due to convey athletes at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, a prototype school bus, and Mercedes vans kitted out as “motherships” from which delivery robots could be dispatched carrying packages.

Only slightly further into the future are IKEA’s designs for AVs fitted out for everything from farm shops to health clinics, while Audi has produced a vision for the car interior of the future, utterly transformed as a “Long Distance Lounge” with chairs and video wall. Townsend speculates that the in-car entertainment market could become bigger than the car industry itself.

Equally fascinating is Townsend’s observation that this has all been a long time coming. The first remotely-controlled vehicle was demonstrated in New York almost a century ago, in 1925, and the first cruise control was introduced as long ago as 1958.

One of Townsend’s main themes is the spatial implications of automated vehicles, which could redraw cities. Roads could be narrower with AVs able to travel closer together, while the vast amount of land used for parking could be removed because AVs would be forever on the move, “storing themselves in perpetual motion”. You would no longer own a vehicle, but summon one when needed, like ordering a taxi.

Some readers will feel that Townsend has sketched out a future with vast possibilities; to others, it will seem like a nightmarish vision where robots effectively control our movement. Both groups, however, will learn a lot.

Ghost Road, by Anthony M Townsend, WW Norton, £21.99

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