No driver, no problem? The future of automation
EasyMile CEO Gilbert Gagnaire on the possibilities for automated vehicles
This article was published in The Beam #7 — Subscribe now for more
Would you step into a bus that has no driver? It may sound futuristic, but it has in fact become a reality that is gaining traction internationally. EasyMile is one of the leading companies that is taking automation to new heights, designing software for driverless vehicles that are ideal for transporting passengers in various controlled environments, such as private campuses or industrial sites. With autonomous vehicles (AVs), new challenges arise and create needs for new business models, job opportunities, and the technical skills to maintain safety standards.
We were curious to find out more. Where is this technology going? How safe can it be? Is automation the next frontier in transportation? To learn more about the challenges and opportunities of this industry, we met with EasyMile CEO Gilbert Gagnaire and discussed the possibilities he sees for automation in transportation.
How did the concept for EasyMile originate and what was the inspiration that got it going?
It was more of an opportunity than a strategy. Back in November 2013, I was doing some rock climbing in the Canary Islands when a friend of mine called me saying that I should have a look at a French company that was developing a driverless shuttle. They were in serious financial difficulties and he asked me whether I would get involved in trying to help them. Ultimately I decided not to join the company, but I found the concept interesting, a possible game changer for people who live in large cities. So I just decided to make it happen.
What is your ultimate goal with EasyMile?
It really depends on how I interpret your question — is it EasyMile as a company or the ultimate goal for society? Door-to-door transportation in mixed traffic, where personal AVs mix with cars driven by human beings, is really challenging. It’s okay at the moment to make experiments, but always with a safety driver. And you wouldn’t believe how hard this is to get rid of — without a safety driver, your entire system has to be fail-safe.
“It will never be acceptable for society that a robot be less safe than a human driver”
I’ll give you an example: if you drive on a highway and you’re in the left lane, you drive fast. Suddenly there’s a mechanical break down — what do you expect the vehicle to do? In that case you expect human common sense to make the most appropriate decision. If there is no one on board, the engineer in charge of programming the system has to think about all the decisions for any kind of scenario that could potentially occur, and the combinations are very wide. The focus of EasyMile as a company is to address driving scenarios that are immediately achievable without safety drivers.
Now, would it be good for the society? Could personal AVs and robotaxis one day replace mass transit? I would say it depends on where. In a city like Los Angeles, which is very widespread, why not? In a city like Paris, which is pretty dense, it would result in a massive traffic jam. Tokyo without the train and the metro would be a nightmare. So it depends on the context and the density of the city.
Technically speaking, I think it’s much harder than what people believe, but there are applications accessible now, such as private campuses or last mile. But personal AVs will not solve all the mobility challenges of cities. One needs shared mobility solutions.
Your software enables automation for various transportation platforms, such as urban, rural and private. Can you talk a little bit about the possibilities that you see for the technology you’re working on now? Like where do you see a need for autonomous vehicles?
There are needs everywhere, but there are only a few use cases that I believe can be addressed commercially in the next three to five years. First, you want to get rid of the safety driver, which is a requirement, otherwise there is no possible business model. To do that you need a reasonably well controlled environment. You also need to figure out how to have a positive business model. And you need a suitable legal framework.
Airports and industrial sites such as power stations or car factories are the ideal sites to start a real business case. These are semi-controlled environments, that are not accessible to the public, and where workers are familiar with safety procedure. In terms of economics, a car factory or a power station usually operates 24/7, meaning you need four to five full-time drivers per vehicle to provide a 24/7 service; the operational expenses are very high. So if you can get rid of the safety driver, you save a lot of money that you can invest into the vehicles and the fleet management solution. Finally, there is already an existing legal framework for robots operating at industrial sites. Automated guided vehicles have been around since probably 15 years, so the norms and the framework are already there — we know how to satisfy the vehicles, we know what we have to comply with, so we are not reinventing the wheel.
That makes sense. With the advancement of automation, how do you see the passenger economy developing as a result? With all of this saved time that people are going to have — no longer driving themselves places — is there sort of a new economy developing out of that? Do you have any thoughts on that?
For first and last mile vehicles, such as the EZ10, we should probably look at different business models than the usual pay-per-use that is in force at the moment.
Imagine that you’re a property developer and you want to create a new residential area. If you build a traditional residential area or a business park, you will have to provide roads, road junctions, roundabouts and car parks. The proportion of land that will be dedicated to cars altogether will likely be close to 40%. If you look at a satellite photo of a business park, you see that half of it is made of car parks. But, if you suggest to the property developer to use that land to build more housing and office space instead of car parks and roundabouts, they will probably save a lot of money, which they can invest to implement AVs on the site.
What have been some of your biggest obstacles so far?
The biggest obstacle is to keep the safety level at the top. 35,000 people die every year on the roads in the U.S. That number is brutal. At the same time, 3,000 billion miles are travelled every year in the U.S. That means there is 0.01 fatalities per million miles travelled. So human drivers are, in fact, quite safe. That’s way too much, but it’s also a challenging target to match if you want to accomplish the same with a robot. And this is what we are talking about. It will never be acceptable for society that a robot be less safe than a human driver.
It seems that another obstacle would be getting people to trust that a robot could get them from A to B. To trust in the technology that you would get into a vehicle that doesn’t have a driver — that’s a big leap of faith.
We work hard on the functional safety with stringent protocols approved by several certification bodies to reach an excellent safety level. And in parallel for user acceptance, we make the ride very soft, smooth, and comfortable to help people trust in the technology.
“Computers currently lack the human common sense — they have absolutely no common sense. They don’t even know that they don’t know”
What has the reception been like so far? You have programs already happening in the United States and around the world.
So far, people are very happy. We have never experienced any incident and the surveys done on the acceptability of our shuttles have shown passengers to be mostly early adopters. However, the day people start relying on the service for their commuting, they will expect the shuttle to be on time, to be reliable, and they will want a real service. For the time being it’s often a fun discovery of an innovative means of transport.
With automation, drivers will become non-essential and could lose their jobs. Are there new job opportunities you’ve seen arise with the technology?
Autonomous vehicles are not so autonomous — in the sense that the fleet has to be monitored. The vehicle does not decide by itself. There’s what we call a control and command centre where all the missions are collected and then assigned. Of course it’s done automatically, but if a passenger presses the stop button, there needs to be someone on the other side. The control center is there to manage any type of incident that can happen and deal with it. We also need people on the ground to do the maintenance of the vehicles and to check the sensors.
The purpose of these vehicles is to try to convince people who currently commute with their cars to take a shuttle to the next train or metro station instead. I don’t believe that this will destroy jobs in the public transport, but rather that people will rely less on their private cars to go to work. That’s the main goal and it’s a win-win deal. Only car makers or oil refiners might complain because we will be using less gas.
Because they are electric?
Because they are electric and if you manage to pack 300 people in a metro, you consume far less than if everyone takes their own car. Gas emission is a huge problem in large cities, and new mobility solutions can contribute to improving air quality. Electric AVs are also silent hence contribute to reducing noise pollution.
Where has EasyMile had the most support and success so far? Are there places where it’s been easier to implement?
To be honest, most countries in the world are quite friendly to this technology. We have customers in Japan, Singapore, China, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Germany, France, Dubai, and we are all over the U.S.: Minnesota, Texas, Florida, California, and Colorado. There is a real appetite for this kind of technology.
Lastly, a very broad question about the distant future. Do you think that autonomous vehicles will be the future of transportation?
Honestly, this is a very disruptive technology and it is difficult to predict how fast technology will be able to pick up in this direction. There are clear hopes in the deep learning techniques and AI. But, for the time being, deep learning is based on scenarios that have been submitted to a machine to learn from those scenarios. It is difficult to cover the entire scenario that can occur in real life. And computers currently lack the human common sense — they have absolutely no common sense. They don’t even know that they don’t know. They just react based on the data sets that have been used to train them.
And in some ways we don’t want them to know more than that, right?
That’s right! So there is this aspect: lack of common sense and also lack of interaction with the users. When you drive your car, when you see a pedestrian on the walkway, within a split-second you know whether the person wants to cross the road or not. If yes, through eye contact you have negotiated who will go first. Eye contact is something that will be difficult to replicate with a computer.
And people are unpredictable.
Of course. We still need progress in the technology. This said, I am not pessimistic, quite the contrary. I am pragmatic. Autonomous vehicles will not be ubiquitous everywhere, but they will solve major mobility hurdles in specific areas and will offer services that were not economically viable, e.g., for people with disabilities or aging population. And EasyMile is striving to achieve this.
Well, thank you!
This article was published in The Beam #7 — Subscribe now for more