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.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.