March 5, 2021 - 2:09pm

Some new technologies are forever ‘ten years away’ until, that is, they suddenly arrive. That’s how it was with mobile phones and flat screen TVs: an expensive niche product went mainstream within the space of a very few years, changing our lives forever.

Driverless vehicles are still stuck in ten-years-away mode, but their time is coming. The revolution is likely to start not on the road, but on the pavement — with delivery robots. According to a report for Axios by Jennifer A Kingson, it’s beginning to get political:

“States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Idaho, Florida and Wisconsin have passed what are considered to be liberal rules permitting robots to operate on sidewalks — prompting pushback from cities like Pittsburgh that fear mishaps.”
- Jennifer A Kingson, Axios

You may have seen these robots being tested in your town or city already — they’re basically a box on wheels and roughly knee-high. However, what’s a novelty now may become a nuisance. Imagine hundreds of the things whizzing around on the one remaining part of the streetscape reserved for pedestrians. Above you, imagine a sky full of buzzing — and, on occasion, crashing — aerial drones.

Among those unhappy at the prospect is Steve Hilton — who was once David Cameron’s right hand man, but more latterly a fixture at Fox News. He’s particularly outraged by the state legislatures that have legally classified the delivery robots as ‘pedestrians’.

I’d imagine he might find an ally in his fellow Fox News host Tucker Carlson. In an interview with Ben Shapiro, Carlson expresses deep disquiet over the impact that driverless truck technology would have on truck drivers’ jobs. There are something like 3.5 million truck drivers in America — so full scale automation would have a devastating impact on livelihoods across the country, especially in communities already devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs to China.

Carlson doesn’t hesitate when asked whether he’d restrict the technology in order to artificially preserve jobs — he’d do it “in a second”. Presumably that means that as well as clamping down on driverless trucks, he’d also target the delivery robots that would bridge the gap between the distribution centre and the home.

What we have here is the makings of a new political divide: Tech-supporting liberals and libertarians versus the pro-job populists of the Trump-haunted Republican Party.

But is this over-cooking it? Will the sheer convenience of the robotised future overcome popular resistance? Just look at the way that the western electorates consented to the offshoring of all those manufacturing jobs. Voters might not have liked de-industrialisation, but our mouths were stuffed with cheap Chinese imports.

Except that a populist backlash did eventually occur, concentrated in the worst-affected parts of each country. In any case, the next wave of disruption — i.e. focused on automation as opposed to offshoring — is going to have a much wider impact: literally bringing the brave new world to your door.

The creators of these new technologies had better watch their step. The more obnoxious their new creations, the bigger the coalition for their prohibition.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.