We all know that digital technology is shaking up many familiar assumptions about our way of life. Two bills now in the House of Commons illustrate how this is happening.
The Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill includes a legal framework for the insurance of driverless vehicles. Even a few years ago, the notion of driverless cars or lorries seemed the stuff of science fiction. Now, driverless vehicles are being tested and may be on our roads within the next decade.
The benefits would be significant. Elderly and disabled people who cannot drive would still be able to use a car. Smart programming would bring greater capacity to our roads.
But there are a lot of questions too. Who is liable if something goes wrong: the owner, the manufacturer or the software designer? How do you programme a car to respond to an infinite number of potential emergencies? How secure would the computers controlling driverless cars be against cyber-attack? And of course the obvious question of alternative work for taxi drivers and chauffeurs.
The second piece of legislation is the Prisons and Courts Bill which includes measures to allow more court business to be done online. Aylesbury Crown Court is already a pioneer in this work, with a lot of court business other than actual trials already being carried out digitally. A remand prisoner can appear for a preparatory hearing in Aylesbury without leaving the gaol – a huge saving in transport, escort, and court security costs.
For governments, technology can cut the cost of providing public services but may also erode the tax base. Online firms are much harder to tax than those that use bricks and mortar. And how do you levy VAT easily on online sales where the transaction crosses international borders?
Challenges and opportunities lie ahead.