Is the world ready for driverless transport?

A Deutsche Bahn driverless bus, trialed in December 2016. Image: Getty.

It’s not easy being a rail passenger. In recent months, London and south-east England have regularly ground to a halt in a series of rail and Tube strikes, disrupting the lives of millions.

One newspaper headline even claimed that the situation was so dire that commuters might be hired by Southern Rail to drive the trains themselves. Recent reports suggest that some kind of resolution may soon be in sight, but as technology advances apace, do transport networks really need staff at all?

With a self-driving bus, the Navya, arriving on the streets Las Vegas, the first in the US to operate on a public road, we may be approaching a future in which our public transport networks could be run, efficiently, by machines. Indeed, London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) network has been operating as a driverless service since 1987 – and 99 per cent of services leave on time.

There rages, however, an embittered debate about how comfortable people may feel entrusting themselves to an automated decision maker.It seems to represent a new, psychological frontier of a kind we have never before encountered.

Whenever machinery is introduced to complete tasks traditionally done by humans, both laymen and professionals are often sceptical – especially when those machines can make decisions on our behalf. But while decision-making machines used to be little more than a theoretical issue, a philosophical debate even, we now have the technology to make them a fact of life.

There are vehicles lurking in corporate R&D hangars whose decision-making abilities on the go are superior to our own, and they are being tested by brands such as Tesla, Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Audi, and Rolls-Royce.

A new age

So what is stopping their wider introduction? The key term used by innovation management experts for how ready a society is for change is “Absorptive Capacity”. This can be likened to the ability of a sponge to absorb liquid, or, in our case, a society to absorb innovation. This absorptive capacity can be influenced by factors such as people’s knowledge and experience of the subject at hand; if there is little of both in society, then that society is likely to react coolly to a proposed innovation.

In other words, if we don’t know enough about how something works we are less likely to embrace it. And how do we get to understand new things if their makers are tight-lipped about how they work? This is one of the biggest obstacles facing the implementation of a far-reaching driverless transport network.

Accidents involving new technology don’t help in the trustworthiness stakes – as the recent crash of a Tesla car in autopilot mode demonstrated. The accident caused people to question the safety of self-driving vehicles, even though they are far safer than human drivers, who cause 94 per cent of accidents in the US. Indeed, human error accounts for far more accidents than mechanical failure

At present, we live in times where our technological capabilities greatly surpass the understanding most of us have of them. If only a few of us understand how a telephone works, we can safely assume that even fewer comprehend what goes on inside a computer. We simply don’t know anymore how our stuff works – so how can we trust it?

But we should. Machines are more predictable than humans, since they don’t have minds of their own, and their suitability for a given task can be established in controlled environments before they are released into the wild. With humans, you never really know what they’ll do next.


Redefining normal

It is frequently argued that mechanised brains may not be able to improvise the way humans can, making driverless vehicles easy prey for unforeseen adversity. While this is true, the other side of the coin is that an ability to improvise in odd circumstances may be less valuable than an ability to always respond accurately within a set framework of normal situations. Normal situations, after all, occur at a far higher frequency. In short, a truck or train capable of doing the right thing every time in a normal context is better than a truck with the ability to evade a zombie apocalypse if it happens. They are also less likely to go on strike.

Besides, the wealth of experience gathered by human operators can now be programmed into the circuits of all driverless vehicles, creating a high and homogenous level of ability to understand and react to situations we will never have among human drivers.

All things considered, a vehicle operated by a well-programmed computer is set to be superior to a human operator in all but the most unusual situations – which are far less likely to occur than those which frequently trip up human operators. It is very doubtful that any computer in charge of operating a vehicle will ever get distracted, suicidal, angry, irrational, or drunk. It will never act malevolently, it won’t be texting on its smart phone when it shouldn’t be, and it won't be having an argument with its passenger. And it probably won’t get creative and attempt to impress or scare another vehicle operator.

It would seem logical to assume that the level of technology required for running a comparably simple operation like a train on tracks between stations is there. The biggest obstacle is our will.

Indeed, the barrier between us and a new, reliable world of driverless transport may only be our inability to understand – and feel comfortable with – the technology. It will take experience to build that trust, and the chance for this to happen has arrived with the Las Vegas driverless bus.

Perhaps it’s time to get on it. The Conversation

Chris Ebbert is senior lecturer in product design at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.