Future transport: A collective effort

Credit: Arup

When you stop to think about it, driving is a pretty ironic example of how humans can collaborate with each other to achieve a common goal, with barely any real interaction with each other at all.

Everyone on the road is trying to get somewhere, navigating the roads, junctions, signs and traffic lights; we’re essentially alone in our vehicles but we have to co-operate and work with each other on the road.

It’s liberating and empowering to switch on the engine, slip your mind into gear and put your senses and reflexes to the test, but isn’t it strange that we are isolated from other drivers on the roads? We’re not sharing what we’ve seen that could help others. We rely mainly on a limited set of changing traffic signals or occasionally some questionable hand gestures.

There are some uncanny similarities to the isolated driving experience we have today, that car manufacturers are also building into autonomous vehicles. They are designed to rely on smart software that makes rapid decisions from data provided by sensors around the vehicle, but not by communicating or making decisions in collaboration with other vehicles.

It won’t be easy, but there is definitely a requirement for there to be more collaboration between competing brands that are developing techniques to assess the road in isolation, and the systems that will govern the roads that they will be driven on.

The roads, they are a changin’

Cities and roads are smartening up

Around the world, cities are already sketching out future visions and experimenting with smart technologies; the Future City Glasgow project is a great example in the UK — taking a fresh look at everything from the city operations centres, energy use, travel systems, through to creating an open data culture to power the next generation of services.

In Amsterdam the Smart City initiative brings together projects around energy trading (for those generating surplus solar in homes), electric cars as an energy storage grid, smarter traffic management and many other forward thinking city services.

New Yorkers have seen huge investments into connected-car research and finding practical use of the Internet of Things with life saving devices like gunshot detectors being deployed in high risk neighbourhoods.

What’s exciting is that whilst leaning on technology giants to provide the ‘plumbing’ for this wave of innovation, these cities have intentionally created an open culture for the community, startups, innovators and the community to collaborate and see what could be possible.

Future transport continues to be the hottest topic for future cities though; our roads are already evolving with smart street lights and the introduction of advanced sensors could measure light levels, detect movement, air quality and more. The surfaces of the roads themselves are advancing to generate solar energy, monitor the road surface quality, and provide data for autonomous driving.

Autonomous cars and services are taking to the roads

Tesla took bold steps making a beta of their Autopilot self-driving features globally available to the public. These trials have been met with a mixed reception but despite that many other car manufacturers are also currently testing and refining the mechanics of autonomous driving, and have their design teams looking ahead to completely redesign the automotive experience for passengers.

Uber and Lyft, the two biggest disruptors in passenger transport, are also heavily investing in experiments with autonomous driving, as they look to the future evolution of their fleet of personal drivers on-demand.

In Dubai, where technology and space age architecture are taking over, the plan for the future city predicts that by 2030 around 25% of transportation trips will be driverless, and tests have already been run with 10-seat passenger cars, as well as flying single passenger drones!

Self-driving passenger cars aren’t the only ones taking to the roads though, MIT predicts that within the next 5–10 years the US will see self-driving large haulage trucks taking to the roads, and in the UK only last week, grocery delivery service Ocado began trials of autonomous delivery vehicles in Woolwich, London. It’s likely that we will see a diversification of how our roads are used, becoming a platform for autonomous vehicles providing new city and consumer services.

Credit: Self-driving cars on a superhighway, by Günter Radtke, 1974

Car ownership could be behind us

If cars could drive themselves, would owning one matter any more?

The reality for most people is that cars spend most of their time parked at home, racking up costs for insurance, servicing, tax and fuel on top of them. It’s time for a new model with networks of cars available to pick you up, drive you autonomously and electrically to your destination whilst only charging you fees for what you use.

Car manufacturers can pivot towards a market that provides vehicles to service driven companies (like Uber) that can operate fleets of autonomous vehicles. But some businesses like car dealerships will need to re-evaluate their business models quickly, focusing more on servicing and electric charging stations and less on sales, and taxi firms that aren’t already investing in autonomous technologies are probably already too late.

I love my car, but unlike the Batmobile it has never appeared when I call for it, I will betray it for a more convenient and lower cost future when I can.

Ethics are coming into question

Should AI be able to make life or death decisions on our behalf?

There are questions on every side of the argument about what to do in accidents involving multiple vehicles. Which lives would have more value? Who is really able to make this decision? Should it be in the hands of a software developer, or a car manufacturer to set logic that tells a car when to intentionally put a passenger into danger to save another life?

This discussion has gained importance after the first tragic death in a semi-autonomous vehicle crash last year. Whilst it’s said that both driver and AI failed to stop the vehicle, it calls for much more thought into keeping people safe on the road.

However, would it even be possible for autonomous vehicles that only base decisions on data from their own sensors and not as a networked collective to make decisions that are safe at all? Many are suggesting that constant supervision would be required even with vehicles that could self-drive.

“The future transport system must be available and affordable for everyone”

Without car brands and the systems that govern the roads collaborating, we may find ourselves in a future just as chaotic, if not more.

With the right collaboration, it would be hard to fault the story behind real-time decision making. Active safety checks of cars and an understanding of the road conditions could lead to better passenger safety. Real time data and analysis of traffic patterns could help to make decisions to smooth traffic and potentially create a positive impact on the surrounding environment.

There is also the ethical question around jobs. Economists are already predicting the impact to job security that this future might have for those driving cars and trucks for a living, and the urgent need for the industry to think about how it would retrain and redeploy staff.

Does it end there though? Surely all this progress we are seeing towards a brighter future means that there is a greater opportunity to start challenging everything else that we’d typically associate with transport on the roads — all of the supporting infrastructure.

The opportunities for change

Transport is for everyone

The future transport system must be available and affordable for everyone; that suggests that the yearly cost of subscribing to and using a service that gets you where you need to go in self-driving cars should cost less than or equal to the average costs to maintain and run a car for an individual now.

There could of course be more premium services on the road that cater for those that fancy something a little more indulgent. If you look at Uber’s current offering and how the scale of cost changes from sharing a ride through to having a luxury vehicle you could imagine a similar model being used, but no matter what price you pay, you should be assured safe travel.

Improve our well-being

We’ve been subject to the roads creating air and noise pollution, are we now going to properly consider the environment around our roads and what that means for our well-being?

Data from air quality and noise sensors along the roads can map where local areas are being impacted and when this data is combined with real time insights on traffic and congestion this can be used to give self-driving cars suggestions on alternative routes that could minimise these negative effects.

Roads were created to empower and serve humans — it’s hard to understand where we stopped considering the negative impact they have.

Repurpose city spaces

If vehicle ownership starts to drop in favour of autonomous and on-demand services, the opportunity will arise to either consolidate or transform the legacy road transport infrastructure.

Car parks in future cities could be repurposed from being omnipresent to more elegantly hidden away centralised hubs around the city that the self-driving cars would be stored, charged and be dispatched from. What can we do with these spaces awaiting a breathe of new life? We could create new green spaces, boost housing, or start new local businesses.

Petrol stations may not need to be placed in the same way that they are today, adopting a model where charging stations are more hub based with smart distributions accounting for the way the roads are used. Let’s free up yet more space to be reclaimed and repurposed for good!

Create new jobs

The numbers are really hard to relate to, but millions of people’s lives will be impacted by the disappearance of jobs as self-driving cars take over and humans aren’t needed behind the wheel.

For a small percentage of the more experienced folks in the passenger and logistical spaces, it’s likely that people will shift into more facilitative co-ordination jobs using their knowledge of their industry and the roads to help to tweak and tune the way autonomous services are designed and run.

All these new autonomous services will need maintenance, so there will also be opportunities for people to set-up businesses that cater for these needs or to bolster that new workforce.

What about the majority that won’t be so lucky though? Will they end up on a universal basic income as many seem to suggest? Or is this just a sign that we as a society have not taken the steps to plan well to create routes for retraining into new jobs or not forcing workers out of jobs?

We should be looking forward to the industries that are predicted to be in dire need of new talent and start to design accelerated paths into these industries by introducing incentives that encourage people to start on the journey of training before the rate of adoption of self-driving vehicles increases. All this, with the goal of avoiding large and uncontrollable leaps in unemployment.

New contenders

Disruption is happening on our streets (if not our roads) all the time, some real notable examples are in the delivery space with the likes of Deliveroo, Amazon Now, and Uber all looking at ways to use the roads to bring services to customers, investing in a better hub model where a broader network of deliverers (people, bikes, cars, robots) can get these services moving.

If the future roads and cities move towards more autonomous roads and less driven vehicles then it seems likely that we’ll continue to see a raft of new services being delivered to customers, and the roads becoming a bit of a physical ‘pipe’, just in the same way that telecommunications and internet providers have become over time.

Aspirations depend on the basics being done well

The race is on to design the future of transport. Car brands are redefining the experience inside vehicles, removing the focus from driving (even down to the beloved steering wheel) and looking at how to create more social and collaborative passenger spaces that could be used for personal, social, family and business use.

Autonomous vehicles are still fundamentally in need of further testing and development before they go mainstream, but they are being taken so seriously that the US Government has announced the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy that ensures a set of standards are met by manufacturers, and other governments are rapidly following.

“some innovators will be focused on securing patents and winning large licensing deals…but we believe there is an opportunity to look at the space differently.”

Meanwhile, I think it’s clear that autonomous transit systems should be part of a network, built from the ground up to work together. Collaboration is key to exist in the future. It will take working together to define a new open standard for everyone to follow and build on.

Local governments will struggle the most here with limited funding and technical leadership to overcome the interoperability challenges between their IT systems and being able to share data between each other.

The new challenges for startups ahead of us

The roads are essentially becoming conduits for refreshed and new service offerings: passenger shuttles, meeting spaces on the move, fast consumer goods delivery networks. Immense amounts of data will be available like never before, and there is a massive opportunity for a new approach to look at how to collaborate and bring these services together.

There are big questions around who should own and run these services, who funds them, how they scale across cities, how they are secured from malicious users? But there is already amazing work happening in the smart city space that is encouraging disruption and creating new opportunities for startups to experiment and learn in one city and then use those learnings to build a business helping to transform other cities.

Do you want to solve the problem of making safe paths for emergency vehicles? Do you want to build on the next generation of machine learning to improve traffic flow and environmental impact? Or perhaps tackle the challenge of moral and ethical decisions in a world of autonomous driving? Or launch an entirely new city service on the roads?

Whatever you do, being openly collaborative will be key to making this happen; some innovators will be focused on securing patents and winning large licensing deals for transit infrastructure, but we believe there is a real opportunity to look at the space differently.

Let’s take inspiration from the open source world (and the likes of Telsa — who open sourced their electric vehicle patents). We should not be scared to collaborate with our intellectual property. If we want to rapidly experiment and reach purposeful innovation within our future cities we will need to work as networks of experts and partners.