What is the Potential Impact of ‘Smart Trucks’ Within the Trucking Industry?

I’m happy to introduce Justin Fox, a graduate from the University of Kent, who is my next guest blogger. Casting an eye to the future, Justin has identified automation as one of the primary issues set to dominate international affairs, , as human workers are made increasingly obsolete. He is currently looking to raise awareness of this issue, so as to encourage a debate about the future direction our workforce as a whole may take.

In all fields of employment, automation has fundamentally changed the nature of how business is done. Tasks that once took hours now take seconds, objects that required teams of people assembling them can be done by robotic arms and now, smart self-driving trucks have been labelled as the future of logistics and heavy goods vehicle (HGV) travel.

In theory such an intelligent programme would be revolutionary for truck fleets around the world, and it comes as no surprise that research funding for such development has not been hard to come by. In Singapore for example in a major piece of trucking news, it was announced that due to concerns about a shortage of drivers, the city-state’s transport authority has turned to the Swedish firm Scania to provide a fleet of self-driving trucks to facilitate the movement of shipping containers within the local ports.

Yet whilst they would arguably make for an efficient form of delivery service, this is only in theory. Smart trucks may be more superficially intelligent than human drivers at reading conditions, but they lack a real person’s ability to improvise to unforeseen circumstances. Much of motorway driving in particular revolves around keeping an eye on the vehicles around you, so whilst the trucks may not cause an issue, how well can they instantly react to someone else’s mistake?

Furthermore, what happens in the event of a technical malfunction? Whilst it’s guaranteed that the quality of each truck will undoubtedly be high and that they will be regularly maintained, no software works perfectly 100% of the time-especially on such a large scale as this.

Other concerns have also been expressed over the threat of hacking, by those who would want to take control of a truck and its contents. The motivations for this range from mischievous to sinister, and could present a very real security risk. Research undertaken by IT consultants found that 1 in 10 people within England and Wales have already been the attempted targets of cybercrime, which is rapidly growing as a major threat thanks to the increasing interconnectivity provided by modern technology.

Therefore as things currently stand there are still many issues which would make smart trucks unfit for replacing human drivers. Not only is there the economic aspect to consider which would put millions out of work, but the potential risks are greater than those posed by a real person in control. Whilst humans are more prone to errors and causing crashes, once they’ve come to a halt that tends to be the end of the incident. In contrast, an automated truck may mistakenly try to push onto its destination, unaware of the tremendous danger it is putting other road users in. Being exclusively controlled via data opens up a door to all manner of rogue threats, and the sheer volume of trucks on the roads would make guarding all of them 24/7 a colossal task.

Do others agree?

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Driving Towards….Driverless AND New Mobility Services!

So much of what we read is focused on what will happen when driverless vehicles are here… and that usually is referring to fully automated vehicles (SAE Level 5 automation), but most people agree that we are decades away from true proliferation. So what will the transition look like? And what can government agencies be doing now?  I think the answer lies in new mobility services.

New Mobility Services refers to transportation alternatives, often leveraging new technology, which are provided by the private sector. Today – we’re seeing new mobility services in the form of transportation network companies (e.g., Uber, Lyft), carpooling apps (e.g., Scoop, Waze), car sharing (e.g., Zipcar, City CarShare), and even shared electric scooters (e.g., Scoot). These private companies are all adding new mobility options to our cities and, at the same time, disrupting our traditional mobility options (i.e., the private car and public transit).

Government agencies (especially in cities) are experiencing this disruption every day. We’re seeing an increase in pick-ups and drop-offs in places not intended for traffic to stop. We’re seeing lawsuits related to discrimination and insurance claims with unclear guilty parties. We’re also seeing confusion for the customers about how to make transfers, handle multiple fare payments, and maintain a LOT of apps!

I believe that this is only the beginning of mobility disruption!  And government has the opportunity now to navigate this disruption, form partnerships, and establish appropriate regulations, policies, and relationships to be able to reap the positives from new mobility services (including driverless vehicles), but also protect against their negatives. New mobility services may be used to fill in gaps in public transit services, provide existing services more cost-effectively, introduce new data to support city planning, and provide more seamless integration with other forms of transportation. While I agree this isn’t the only thing that can be done now, I think it’s an important step forward. Do you agree?

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Driverless Vehicles News….and the Lack Thereof

Despite the fact that driverless vehicles continue to make headlines, I must admit that the “news” hasn’t really been new! States continue to consider new legislation around driverless vehicles. Pilots continue to pop up around the world. Academic institutions continue to study the ethics around driverless vehicle decision-making. Companies continue to invest in the advancement of the technology. Don’t get me wrong – the industry is still investing millions into this technology and I’m still extremely excited about its potential, but I’m disappointed by the headlines.

The reality of today’s situation is that there was around a year or two of hype and we’re now in the “trough of disillusionment” (as shown in Gartner’s technology hype cycle). While driverless vehicles haven’t failed to deliver (as the Gartner model states), they are just taking longer to become a reality than most of the predictions stated. The good news is that this hype cycle predicts the “slope of enlightenment” and the “plateau of productivity” next. The technology will still come (assuming no major failures), but a lot of the hype will likely fall to the wayside.

I’m really hoping we’ll see the news stories dig a little deeper than “Driverless vehicle fender bender!” or “Driverless legislation is falling behind!” Instead, I’d like to see articles that discuss what IS working (pilots, legislation, policies) and how we can ensure quick, safe adoption of the technology when it is available. And maybe the government will even initiate headlines around what they’re doing to proactively prepare for driverless technology!!  What headlines would you like to see today (non-political ones, please!)?

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2017 CES Driverless Favorites and Reflections

While I was not able to attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, I have greatly enjoyed following the buzz around it. Automakers and technology developers have been saving up their biggest headlines for this event. I thought I’d share some of my favorites from the past few days:

Nvidia CES 2017 Keynote: Google Home AI, Cloud Gaming Service, AI Co-Pilot For Your Car: “Nvidia’s self-driving car system, the Drive PX, will now not only try to understand the environment around the car, but it will also use AI to understand what’s going on in the interior of the vehicle. Nvidia-powered cars will be able to watch which direction the driver’s head is turned, where their eyes are gazing and read their lips so the car’s AI can understand instructions even if there’s loud music playing. Huang said the car’s AI will be able to understand if the driver is angry and tell them to pull over to the side of the road if it doesn’t look like they’re prepared to drive.”

Honda Unveils First Electric Ride-Sharing Concept Car: “Honda says the two-seat vehicle could be programmed to pick up and drop off passengers when its owner isn’t using it, or to sell back remaining energy to the grid…It studies driver’s reactions and patterns using AI technology developed with SoftBank, and makes recommendations on music and tips on daily driving habits. Honda also throws in an electric skateboard in the NeuV storage compartment to go the last mile.

Faraday Future’s Embarrassing Malfunction: Faraday Future unveiled its first production car (“FF91”), but one of its demos did not go well. As stated in this article, “The stakes are incredibly high for FF, which has had a tumultuous year marked by a lot of hype, explosive growth, high-profile staff departures, lawsuits, failed payments, and questions about the company’s relationship with Jia and his company LeEco.”

Alliance for Transportation Innovation Announces 2017 Autonomous Vehicle Cross-Country Road Tour: The “AV Road Trip” will bring self-driving technology directly to the public in cities across America. Check out an EasyMile vehicle.

There were lots of fun demos with exciting interiors and exteriors expected with driverless vehicles (BMW, Chrysler’s mini-van, Faraday Future’s FF91)

Lots of unveiling of new in-car communication tools (Toyota, Hyundai/Google Home, Nissan/Microsoft, Chrysler/Google Android, Ford/Amazon Echo)

And, of course, there were loads of announcements around the arrival of Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles by the carmakers (e.g., Nissan, BMW/Intel/Mobileye, Audi/NVIDIA).

Anyone else have anything interesting from the 2017 CES to share?

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When are Driverless Vehicles REALLY Coming?!

Well obviously it depends on who you ask. And it depends on what you mean by “driverless!” As stated in this Wall Street Journal article headline, the “self-driving hype doesn’t reflect reality.” Over the last year, we have seen the auto makers and technology developers with countless headline-grabbing announcements around their number of miles tested, company partnerships and purchases, and first-time implementations. Many automakers and technology developers have promised fully automated vehicles in the next few years….and we are seeing driverless vehicle pilots happening around the world (see my blog post on experiencing a ride in one of these pilots!), so they must be coming soon, right?!

I believe the two key questions that all headline-grabbing, driverless companies should be asked to get at the heart of the issue are:

  1. What level of automation are you expecting to have available in the next few years? As this article states, everyone is expecting a Level 5 vehicle. It’s likely that most of these companies are aiming to develop Level 4 (not 5) vehicles, which means that they will be automated, but they will only be able to operate in designated areas and humans may need to take over. Most of the automation that we are seeing today are in Level 2 vehicles (e.g., Tesla’s “Autopilot” system), but we are seeing some of the shared autonomous vehicles operating at Level 4.
  2. Where are these vehicles going to be available? I think most people read headlines citing the availability of driverless vehicles in 2020 and they assume that they can go to a car dealership and purchase one. In reality, I believe we will see shared driverless fleets (similar to what Uber is testing in Pittsburgh and Nutonomy is testing in Singapore) and Level 2 and 3 automated vehicles available at dealerships.

Then the question about timing of our “driverless utopia” (or 100% fully automated, level 5 vehicles) becomes a much harder timeframe to predict. I still remain hopeful that this “utopian” future will happen in my lifetime, but that timeline is fuzzy.  When (if at all) do YOU think it will happen?

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Driverless Vehicle Ethics – Should We Care?

I think I’ve avoided this topic long enough. The types of questions the industry is often faced with are: How will the vehicle decide who to kill: the driver or other people? And will the vehicle have knowledge to make the decision about which people’s lives are more valuable? Should the vehicle aim for the cyclist with a helmet (who is protected) instead of the cyclist without one? To date, Germany is the only government agency that has taken a stance on this topic. As stated in this article, the country’s transportation minister outlined three rules as a starting point for future laws:

  1. Property damage always takes precedence over personal injury.
  2. There must be no classification of people, for example, based on their size, age and the like.
  3. If anything goes wrong, the manufacturer is liable.

Interestingly, the auto makers and technology developers are pretty quiet on this issue. I’m not surprised. I believe the media and the academics are making this into a much larger issue than it actually is (see some examples of the hype here, here, and here). When was the last time when you were driving that you were faced with a decision to kill yourself versus someone else? And, if you are in the very small group faced with that situation, how did you make the decision? Was there even time to make a decision?

MIT has developed a Moral Machine to gather a “human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence, such as self-driving cars.” The reality is that the developers working on driverless vehicles are refining the technology to deal with pedestrians, cyclists, bad weather, poor pavement markings, and construction sites…. Despite these challenges being every day occurrences, our society has put a lot of emphasis on the moral decisions….is that necessary?

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AV Pilots: Policy, Funding, and Partnerships are Happening!

Pilots, pilots, and more pilots!  This is an exciting time in the driverless vehicle world because we’re starting to see Level 3 and 4 automated vehicles being piloted in many different settings around the world (e.g., Japan, Pittsburgh, Singapore, and Dubai). And, what’s even more exciting is that governments are getting involved in a lot of different ways:

  • Establishing policies around driverless testing and pilots. Check out Australia’s National Guidelines for Automated Vehicle Trials, which focuses on safety, but also lays out clear expectations for the private industry.
  • Providing government funding for driverless pilots. The US Department of Transportation just issued a request for proposals for “automated vehicle technology “proving grounds.”
  • Government partnerships with the private sector for driverless pilots. In Ontario, for example, the province, has been seeking out applications for private industry and academic institutions to conduct AV testing. In the United Kingdom, the government awarded a £5.5 million grant to a consortium of partners, which include Bosch, Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), Jaguar Land Rover, Direct Line Group, The Floow and the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

No matter the approach, these pilots are critical for ensuring the advancement of the technology.  The technology requires thousands of miles of testing in real-world scenarios (not just test facilities!) and people need to see the technology in action to be willing to consider using it. Government agencies are starting to see the potential safety and mobility benefits of the technology more and more, but government also needs to understand (based on real-life experience) how they need to update their infrastructure, what data will be needed and be made available, procurement policy changes, how to handle liability, and how best to manage the transition period.  What else should government agencies consider as they implement these pilots?

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