Every act of travel, understood as the movement of people from one geographical location to another, has two main components, which may be mapped on two axes (Fig. 1).
One is the physical process of movement, say from home to office and back. Let’s call this y-axis, the physical journey. A journey has many aspects that are easily quantifiable, in terms of medium employed, costs, time, distance, speed, and so forth. The other component of travelling is the experience. Let’s call this x-axis, the experiential trip. A trip has qualitative aspects that are more subjective and hence more difficult to specify, such as perceived duration, novelty, comfort, enjoyability, and so forth. The digital revolution has deeply transformed human mobility by changing both the journey and the trip component of travelling.
Consider A first, in Fig. 1. This is the zero-travelling option I mentioned in Section 1. In some cases, digital technologies have eliminated both the journey and the trip because everything happens inside the infosphere. TelepresenceFootnote 1 and the remotization of jobs, for example, have hugely contributed to a lowering of the need for mobility. At the same time, option A may simply shift the occurrence of travelling; our shopping online has caused a huge increase in delivery services, hence of journeys (the courier’s), if not of trips (ours). This explains why lower human mobility leads to higher artificial mobility, that is, the replacement of people with artificial agents whenever possible, from delivery drones in the sky and luggage-sized vehicles navigating about town, to ships without crews. In other words, the more A you have, the more C you are likely to need. If this is correct, the future of drones lies not so much in transporting humans but in delivering goods, in tandem with AI solutions that can handle tasks such as navigation, orientation, scheduling, safety, and delivery.
At the opposite corner of the quadrant, in D, we find new forms of mobility made possible by the infosphere. Driverless motorbikes are a bit of an oxymoron not because motorbikes need us on board for balancing purposes, for this engineering problem can easily be solved (a self-balancing motorbike can park itself), but because motorbikes are often about the trip and the journey at least in equal measure, that is, they are often about the trip experience of the physical journey. Likewise, if you rent a sport car for a day, it is because you want to enjoy (trip) the driving (journey). This is why I doubt we shall see a driverless Ferrari. What the digital revolution has done is to make some mobility cheaper and safer (journey), and more enjoyable (trip). Thus, sustainable mobility trends made possible by ICTs, especially in urban contexts, such as 3rd generation bicycle-sharing systems, are a form of mobility that relies on a new combination of less impactful journeys that are, at least ethically speaking, more satisfactory trips.
Looking to the bottom right, we find in B that digital technologies are trying to make any travel just a matter of enjoyable trip, eliminating as much as possible the tedious aspects of the journey. Cruises are a classic example; the journey is entirely absorbed by the trip. Consider on-board entertainments of all kinds in all sorts of vehicles, geolocation, digital maps, navigators, and other digital features: increasingly autonomous cars performing more and more functions independently of the driver, and these are all trends in the transformation of human mobility into a purely experiential phenomenon. In the future, one may imagine forms of virtual mobility becoming a reality in this context, e.g., replacing holiday tours as digital trips without physical journeys.
Finally, in the top left, in C, we find more efficient mobility, which tends to exclude more and more the human component: better and safer performance, lower costs, less time, better routes, just-in-time re-routing, re-scheduling, monitoring of consumption, better logistics, 24/7 services: these are some of the many aspects of a deep transformation of travel into unmanned journeys with no trip component, with AI systems in charge and humans at most ‘on’ the loop, placed in the A square. Here, one of the great successes has been freight transport, which is increasingly automated, especially at sea. The foreseeable future includes the further automation of public transport in public spaces (e.g., dedicated lanes) and environment-bounded technology-friendly, local mobilities, such as airport buses, and robots in industrial logistics, as in warehouses. In this context, we should be careful not to confuse the logically possible with the actually feasible. In theory, level-5 autonomous vehicles—that is, those that are completely autonomous and require no driver—are perfectly (i.e. logically) possible because there is nothing intrinsically contradictory in assuming that, one day, all potential difficulties will be resolved by the right kind of technology. In practice though, what we are likely to witness will be deep transformation (re-ontologisation again) of whole environments to ensure that the available technologies will be successful (we are ‘enveloping’ the world around the capacities of our digital technologies, see Floridi (2014)). Think of the difference between (the logical possibility of) developing totally reliable visual systems to enable an autonomous vehicle to identify and recognise road signs in any weather condition in any context, from the snowy and foggy countryside to a rainy and traffic-bound city at night, to (the actual feasibility of) re-engineering all road signs in a given environment (say an airport) to make them communicate with the vehicle wirelessly and seamlessly, through radio signals, rather than visually.