Technology | Automation
Transport Automation – The Road Ahead
Transport Automation – The Road AheadBack
We’ve talked, more than once, on the Atlas Podcast about self-driving vehicles. We’ve looked at the current state of things, legislation that should help progress move forwards and potential futures these technologies might realise.
But where are we really at with the automation of transport? Is a fully automated transport system a goal we want to achieve? If it is, why is that?
What is transport automation?
Transport automation is the pursuit of the goal of removing the human element from transportation systems. A truly automated transportation system would mean everything from road transport, trains, planes, and water vehicles are operated by automated computer systems.
A fully automated transportation network would depend on developing computer systems that can act predictably but also react reliably when potential dangers or unexpected situations appear.
These technologies would need to operate locally, using sensors and onboard computers to view and understand the world around them. But they would also need to be reliably networked, both in terms of being able to communicate with vehicles around them as well as with cloud servers and data lakes that could provide up to date data models and software patches.
What are the drawbacks of an automated transportation network?
Probably the most present fear when it comes to automated transportation is safety. Whether or not a computer can properly operate a vehicle of any description so as to avoid danger to human life is a big question.
Beyond that, there are concerns over the effect it will have on professions built around transportation. With automated transport implemented, that could mean the removal of an entire sector’s worth of employment opportunities.
In the short term, a mixture of manual and automated transportation brings its own drawbacks too. Humans and machines speak inherently different languages and having them share the road could cause real problems.
What are the benefits of an automated transportation network?
Some of the benefits are actually answers or responses to some of the potential drawbacks. With technology constantly progressing, some things we currently see as being purely within the human domain, may be handled better by machine systems.
A concern over the safety of automated transportation could be answered with the argument that manually operated transportation is already a dangerous thing.
Many accidents that lead to injury or death are caused by human factors that wouldn’t be present with automated systems managing transportation. Driving while impaired, tiredness, distraction, all of these things are inherently human.
Safety may also be increased by the nature of the technology itself. Humans are incredible machines, capable of wonderful things, but there are things machines will always be better at. Our reaction times can’t compete with those of modern computers. We can see well, but we can’t see in the infrared spectrum, we can’t use echolocation or ladar.
The technologies we could potentially outfit autonomous vehicles with might be able to see, hear, and react to the world around us better and faster than we could ever hope to.
The argument that advances in technology will lead to unemployment is not a new one, or a simple one to counter. 19th century Luddites were so convinced that textile machinery, which formed a central pillar to the first industrial revolution, would make them unemployed that they set about destroying it at every opportunity.
Despite their efforts, the machinery persisted and the industrial revolution actually led to an increase in employment opportunities. Whether that was ultimately a “good” thing is a subject for another article (or perhaps a whole series!) but for the time being it’s fair to say that new technology rarely, if ever, results in mass unemployment.
Where one necessity is removed by a leap forward in the systems we have available to us, opportunities tend to be created. Whole new industries can be born when the need to do something manually ceases to exist.
While we 100% understand the anxiety that anyone in the transportation sphere might feel, we are big believers in the ability of new technologies to open up whole industries filled with opportunity.
The big benefit, the one that excites us the most about transport automation, is a paradigm shift in terms of efficiency. Whether we’re talking about the daily commute or international shipping, the potential for things to run unimaginably smoothly is a thrilling prospect.
We’ve all been stuck in traffic. Whether that’s waiting for a light to change or sitting bumper to bumper on a motorway. With a fully automated transportation network these occurrences could be a thing of the past.
Traffic jams are almost always caused by human error. Traffic collisions might be the first thing that springs to mind, but more often than not, jams are caused by momentary lapses in concentration. One person hits the brakes a little too late, which affects the person behind, and the person behind them, and so on.
Automated vehicles, fully networked and capable of communicating with the moving world around them, wouldn’t do this. They could increase and decrease speed in concert. They could anticipate areas of congestion and compensate ahead of time.
And sitting and waiting for the light to turn green? That’s a human solution! Networked autonomous vehicles wouldn’t need to line up and wait for their turn to turn left, they’d know instinctively where they were going and how to get there in relation to every other vehicle around them.
These are just the most personal of bumps to efficiency as well. When you look at an automated transportation network on a global scale, you can imagine deliveries moving seamlessly from automated system to automated system, never needing to stop for breaks or shift changes or traffic jams or green lights!
Are we ready for transport automation?
Simply put, no. Because transportation touches almost every element of our lives, a massive shift in our approach to it will never be an easy thing to introduce. Technology needs to be provably better than it’s human counterpart before it will see mass adoption.
The encouraging fact is though, we’re steadily working our way towards automated transportation, often without advertising it.
For years now, many commercial aircraft and watercraft have been predominantly controlled using autopilots. We’ve introduced cruise control, parking assists and more to our cars. The UK government is even in the process of passing legislation that allows for automated lane keeping systems to be implemented on UK motorways.