OPINION: Are autonomous vehicles ready to deploy at scale? | Traffic Technology Today

OPINION: Are autonomous vehicles ready to deploy at scale? | Traffic Technology Today

Professor Nick Reed, founder and CEO of Reed Mobility, gives his insight into the latest advances in autonomous vehicles and asks if advances in AI will soon see large-scale deployment

The 2024 Intertraffic event in Amsterdam was hugely impressive and impressively huge. Amidst multicolor matrix signs, engineered wood highway barriers and AI-based traffic analytics companies there was also a packed four-day knowledge program. The most intriguing presentation I saw was by Professor Billy Riggs from the University of San Francisco, which was followed by him in conversation with the session chair, Tom Alkim from MapTM, an international expert on all things connected and automated. San Francisco itself is a global hotbed for the development and deployment of self-driving vehicles. There are those who claim that deployment at scale on public roads can never happen. However, commercial self-driving taxi services amidst the sloping streets and cable cars of San Francisco’s complex urban environment (albeit in a limited area and only after huge investment) suggest that the challenges are not insurmountable – even if we are not surmounting them as quickly as had been expected.

“Automating the driving task is removing only one of the responsibilities fulfilled by a human driver”

Returning to Riggs and Alkim, what was particularly pleasing was the breadth of their discussion. While details of the technology and the efforts to prove safe operation are interesting, the session concentrated on the real, practical implications of self-driving vehicle deployment, with Riggs’ extensive, multidisciplinary background prior to becoming an academic shining through. This element of discourse on self-driving vehicles is perhaps under-appreciated. How will we manage the kerbside when self-driving buses and delivery vehicles are vying for this space? And in the context of cities that are seeking to dedicate more infrastructure to support active travel, what will it mean for automated vehicles to operate in an equitable manner, serving the needs of the communities into which they are deployed and facilitating trips in low-income communities that were previously impossible or impractical? How can self-driving vehicle companies develop scalable, sustainable business models that enable them to recoup the massive investments they have made in the development of the technology? How will the employment market change as we migrate from driving jobs to jobs that support and enhance the operation of self-driving vehicles? How will working practices change if time spent commuting can become time spent working? Riggs has worked on these topics and has receipts in the form of published papers.

So what next? Convincing the public that self-driving technology works sufficiently safely to be considered acceptable is going to be challenging enough. However, we have to remember that automating the driving task is removing only one of the responsibilities fulfilled by a human driver. Automation may bring safer driving and more predictable behaviors but the variety of tasks that a human operative can perform as part of their role is often critical in the safe, effective and efficient completion of the task for which the journey was required. Without addressing these very human questions, I think the introduction of self-driving technology will be an uphill battle. Professor Riggs in San Francisco is on the frontline.

This article first appeared in the June 2024 edition of TTi magazine


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