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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.