Autonomous people mobility: current and future trends

Introduction

What is happening in the transportation industry?

There are a lot of aspects to consider. Here I give my view on the commercial autonomous vehicle from a people mobility’s perspective.

To start with, Autonomous Vehicles (AV) represent an unique opportunity to change urban mobility as long as it is integrated to the public transport network, shared and seamless. (“Autonomous vehicles: potential game changer for urban mobility”, 2017).

In other words and a bit forward, the autonomous system needs to cater for the trunk lines and the first and last mile to combine the benefits of fixed and scheduled mass transit services with the ones of dynamically routed mobility on demand. At the end, the solution is a  multimodal autonomous seamless shared transport system which is inclusive and ideally built on a common platform.

Background

In the last century, not long ago, the future of mobility was a long-standing vision pictured through the mainstream in cartoons, books and movies of science fiction, though don’t ignore that substantial serious research was happening in the backstage.

Side note: Goodyear’s tire company thought of an autonomous concept car called Golden Sahara II in the 1950’s. Tires were illuminated for safety reasons, the interior was also designed, and machine-to-human features were thought of in Goodyear’s concept vision. ("World Premiere of Restored 1950’s Autonomous Concept Vehicle", 2019).

Today, we witness the predictions of the last century becoming reality (please ignore the hyperbolic stories such as wingless cars flying all over in the sky). But think of robots, driverless vehicles, drones as a mean of goods delivery and people transportation, machine-to-machine (M2M) and machine-to-human (M2H) communication, machine learning, wireless real-time communication, Internet of Things (IoT), Industry 4.0, incoming 5G networks, etc...

At large, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is in all aspects of our daily life (many times unnoticeable) and greatly populating the specialized publications, universities benches, research labs, seminars, summits.

As such, Autonomous Vehicles are being realized by the Internet-related tech companies and the automotive industry, which, by the way, have taken the lead in research and development, trials, capability demonstrations and so on, and the subject is nowadays part of any company’s board meetings.

More yet, authorities from cities and nations are putting high pressure on the academia and industry on the development of the next stage of deployment and commercialization to accelerate delivery. The cyber industry certainly overpromised during a hype a couple of years ago and sent a mistaken message, also putting a lot of pressure on incumbent automakers to rethink the business to fend off competition. The expectation was set out after a couple incidents, including fatalities, and the challenge to deliver on sketched promises.

Nevertheless, now it is being enquired to concretize. I’m sure it will be realized, but not so soon. It seems like a new hype commences driven by tech companies overpromising again. Don’t be fooled, it will take a few more years until we can order a driverless taxi or ride on an autonomous bus or shuttle to commute to a desired destination.

So, what’s happening?

The transport authorities, transport operators and government in general are deeply engaging on developing and pushing forward an ambitious roadmap on autonomous vehicle technology to transform the transport industry in the years ahead.

Well, one may argue that it’s usually the case in regards to technological disruptions as the government in developed countries supports innovation. True! Difference is that this time there is a strong push in partnering with the industry, it is not about offering something off-the-shelf from a company, it’s about compromising with demonstrating capabilities and commitment to deploy in serious terms.

Has the game changed? To some extent, I think so. However we have to consider how the industry is enabled to accept such push. The business rules, but after all there is also an extremely important technical roadmap and all many other aspects in the equation. It’s about investment costs, political reasoning, strategical vision, government relationship, societal inputs, human behavior and acceptance, safety and security, etc. The spectrum of variables is wide.

The authorities are pushing forward and the industry is somehow committing to it. At the end, the technology maturity and Safety and Security will dictate the game. “Safety and Security is paramount”, as I heard from a Transport Authority CTO. Being so, there’s no bargain against the industry and society. Pedestrians safety will tackle the decision as well before any driverless vehicle is launched in public transportation.

Side note: on safety and security, consider the hacking by a couple of researchers that in 2015 caused a recall by Jeep once that they proved the possibility of invading the system by using wireless technology to drive a Jeep Cherokee off the road. (Greenberg, 2015) Also worth reading this article on Forbes: Hacked Driverless Cars Could Cause Collisions And Gridlock In Cities, Say Researchers (Carter, 2019).

Short-term future

We will see a lot of developments and consolidations in the industry, as well as the user at the heart of the mobility system. SDS, Lidars, sensors, improved algorithms, inbuilt solutions in vehicles, integrated solutions, electrification… all of these will be made commercially available.

We will also see some companies falling apart, others cropping up, others consolidating a market position. It’s an open world full of uncertainties, but equally full of opportunities. And it is a consortia driven type of engagement.

It is certain that we will see quite soon a lot of initial deployments and commercial applications, but on a limited scale because the technology is not yet ready, but also because of the business environment and all the social, political and economic aspects need to be taken into consideration. We are in the early stages.

Long-term future

Here I leave a few questions and some food for thought...

What’s happening in the backstage today that’s going to be witnessed in the future?

Will driverless vehicles ever replace human in judgement where human judgement is essential today? Think of the moral “Holborn problem”. (Orlowski, 2018. Emm, 2019)

A bit off the topic on autonomous, deliberate that private cars will be less preferred among many other options, but Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) will be a trend as a technological backbone. The algorithm (i.e. AI) will give us the optimal way to get from A to B, including bus, bicycles, scooters, trains, subways.

Operators will become more and more multi-modal and new business models will rise as a consequence. E.g. ride-sharing companies integrated to the public transport system with a subscription-based pricing.

Conclusion

Autonomous vehicles hold an unique opportunity to change urban mobility with a huge potential positive impact on the industry and society. There are risks to be properly mitigated at this stage of the technology, but surely AVs will be largely deployed in the future.

As I wrote in a previous article: “For now, It is important to successfully tackle the business aspects of this meteoric evolving mobility ecosystem, as well as to assess the societal and economical aspect to design a sustainable system. The users need to understand the technology, and the solutions need to be less costly and scalable in a business sense. / The challenges are enormous! The high-realism simulations and technical evaluations of the so far demonstrated technologies are not sufficient to make autonomous driving possible in a safe and secure manner. More advanced complimentary technologies are necessary for AVs to predict and understand the surroundings.” (Caetano, in “Autonomous vehicles: brief reflections”, 2019).

In April I am planning to attend the City as a Lab Summit in Ljubljana. I am thrilled to learn more and share my views from the summit.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect neither the position of the company I work for nor of any official authority nor private entity.

References

  1. Autonomous vehicles: potential game changer for urban mobility. (2017, January 16). Retrieved from https://www.uitp.org/news/autonomous-vehicles-urban-mobility
  2. World Premiere of Restored 1950’s Autonomous Concept Vehicle Golden Sahara II with Goodyear Tires. (2019, March 5). Retrieved from https://news.goodyear.eu/world-premiere-of-restored-1950s-autonomous-concept-vehicle-golden-sahara-ii-with-goodyear-tires/
  3. Greenberg, Andy. (2015, July 21). Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2015/07/hackers-remotely-kill-jeep-highway/
  4. Carter, Jamie. (2019, March 5). Hacked Driverless Cars Could Cause Collisions And Gridlock In Cities, Say Researchers. Retrived from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiecartereurope/2019/03/05/hacked-driverless-cars-could-cause-collisions-and-gridlock-in-cities-say-researchers/#3cfff8112a09
  5. Orlowski, Andrew. (2018, Jan 11). Brit transport pundit Christian Wolmar on why the driverless car is on a 'road to nowhere'. Retrieved from https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/01/11/christian_wolmar_interview_self_driving_cars/
  6. Emm, David. (2019, March 8). Debunking the myths of driverless cars. Retrieved from https://www.autonomousvehicleinternational.com/opinion/debunking-the-myths-of-driverless-cars.html
  7. Caetano, R. (2019, January 13). Autonomous vehicles: brief reflections on a remarkable 2018 and expectations for an exciting new Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/autonomous-vehicles-brief-reflections-remarkable-2018-rodrigo-caetano/ 
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