Necessity may be the mother of invention, but she is no sole provider. The US military has long been Necessity’s devoted husband. As the happy couple is now reaching its eighteenth anniversary since settling down for a life together in Afghanistan, it may be that the children of this extended sabbatical – namely, autonomous vehicles – will soon finally move out into the world on their own terms. Quite possibly, they will rebel against their loving parents.
The main characteristic of autonomous vehicles is the ability to travel where human drivers cannot comfortably, safely, or cheaply go themselves. Some examples include small autonomous trucks operating in mountainous areas, large autonomous trucks crossing deserts, autonomous boats accessing islands where no good ports exist, and aircraft using JPADS (Joint Precision Airdrop System) invented in Afghanistan in recent years to deliver cargo to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible as a result of natural disasters, natural barriers, or war.
These inventions may have two huge effects. First, they may help to overthrow the tyranny of Necessity, easing the transportation of basic necessities in poor countries in a way similar to what mobile phones have been doing for communication. Second, they may undermine the dominant position of the US, by empowering large, strategically located countries that have until now been limited by those very same barriers autonomous vehicles may help to overcome.
Five world regions stand out here, as areas where autonomous vehicles could be especially impactful.
One is the Latin world, particularly the Spanish world, which is characterized by mountains, rainforests, deserts, and narrow seas like the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Another is the Arctic, with its air, land, and icy sea routes linking Asia, America, and Europe, encompassing large expanses of remote, resource-rich territory. A third region is Southeast Asia, with its islands and peninsulas from Taiwan to Australia, and jungles, Himalayas, and sky-high plateaus between India and China. Fourth, the vast, vibranium-rich heartlands of Africa: from the ten Great Lake countries (including Ethiopia) in the south and east, to the ten Saharan countries in the north and west.
But perhaps most important is the “Greater Middle East”: the Islamic world from Central Asia to Central Africa, spanning deserts, seas, and mountains, and sitting atop a sea of oil that will probably continue to be necessary to power any autonomous vehicles – or, at least, power any autonomous aircraft. Particularly well-situated may be the oil-rich Gulf states, such as Iraq, and the mountainous Central Asian ones, such as Afghanistan. This would be an interesting turn – one the one hand, it might actually help fulfil America’s dream of bringing democracy to the Middle East; on the other hand, it might help fulfil America’s nightmare of Islam re-emerging as a global political force.
This would be nothing new, however. Mobile phones were invented during the Vietnam War era, yet they have since empowered Communist China more than any other major state (if also, arguably, helping to de-radicalize China). Britain invented railroads during the years between its wars with the US, only to see the US empowered by railroads more than any other major power, and inherit Britain’s leading status. (Railroads also helped to de-radicalize the US: by linking America’s Northeast and Midwest they undermined the South, which had previously enjoyed influence in the Midwest by way of sailing up the Mississippi). Just as Necessity is not a single mother, Invention is no only child. Rather it has two siblings, born just moments after humanity’s first and greatest tool was invented, when its inventor accidentally burnt himself celebrating. Invention’s siblings are Illumination, and Irony.