Teaching the computers: a revolution in driving jobs

Bedfordshire-based CAT Driver Training has been nominated for a Transportation as a Service (TaaS) Technology Award for its innovative Autonomous Safety Driver and Operator Training course.

Conducted at 5G-enabled Millbrook Proving Ground, the nationally recognised programme is designed to help those involved in the development of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) to meet the requirements set out in the government’s new code of practice for automated vehicle trialling.

Specifically, section 4.14 says: “The responsibility for ensuring safety drivers and safety operators have received the appropriate training and are competent lies with the trialling organisation.”

The course asks probing questions, such as: How many of your team are advanced drivers, not just experienced drivers?; How many have been trained in skid control or winter driving techniques?; and how many are vehicle dynamics engineers?

Colin Hoad, chief instructor at CAT Driver Training, said: “Our unique programme was developed to bridge a gap we identified between the world of vehicle testing and the technology start-ups putting safety at the forefront of their CAV development.”

Looking at the bigger picture, should this be taken as evidence to support the view that automation could create as many jobs as it destroys?

Well, a reassuring point in the University of Michigan’s Self-Driving Cars Teach-Out was the likely increase in roles variously described as operators, attendants, concierges or guides.

A report this week in Auto News detailed how two companies in Arizona are leading the way.

Starsky Robotics announced a career progression plan aimed at “retaining valued driver expertise for remote-controlled driving on the first and last mile”, while haulier TuSimple is offering its drivers the opportunity to become “autonomous vehicle driver and operations specialists”.

More initiatives like these might help to allay automation anxiety… and stop people throwing rocks at self-driving test cars.

Should driving be outlawed in the driverless future?

Expressing a highly contentious view, Jonathan Webber, Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University, has suggested that human drivers should be banned once driverless cars are up to speed.

Writing in The Conversation, he said: “Robot drivers won’t break the speed limit, jump the lights, or park where they shouldn’t. They won’t drive under the influence of drink or drugs. They’ll never get tired or behave aggressively. They won’t be distracted by changing the music or sending a text, and they’ll never be trying to impress their mates.

“Many people enjoy driving. But many people enjoy smoking too, and this is banned in public places. There could be designated safe spaces for drivers to indulge their hobby without risk to other people.”

It is a convincing argument. He even acknowledges the importance of access, saying: “There is a strong case that essential transport infrastructure should be publicly owned. And if private cars are not an option, perhaps the cost of using autonomous taxis should be proportionate to ability to pay.

“But regardless of how we resolve these practical issues, it seems that the enormous benefits of safe, driverless taxis should lead us to remove any other kind of car from our roads.”

This strong stance puts him on a collision course with Alex Roy, the New York-based founder of the Human Driving Association (HDA).

An arch critic of fatuous and excessive claims made by self-driving proponents, eyebrows were raised when Roy wrote an article for The Drive explaining why he had accepted a position with driverless tech company Argo AI.

“I want what any sane person should want. I want tomorrow, today. I want it to be reliable. I want technology that enhances my life rather than restricts it,” he said.

“I want to own a car with a self-driving button, but I still want a steering wheel, and I want to set the first autonomous Cannonball Run record, and I want my daughter to have a driver’s license.”

To achieve this, the HDA is calling for a constitutional amendment on the right to drive your own vehicle.

As so often with the embryonic driverless car industry, there are more questions than answers: Are the two really so far apart? Do we need something like the HDA on this side of the pond?

UK Autodrive report highlights driverless progress and challenges

The groundbreaking UK Autodrive project has published its final report, reflecting on some impressive achievements and highlighting urgent challenges.

Back in December 2014, UK Autodrive was one of three successful consortia selected from Innovate UK’s Introducing Driverless Cars To UK Roads competition. On launch, in October 2015, it was the UK’s largest ever trial of connected and self-driving vehicles.

The rollcall of big names involved with the project included planning consultants Arup, Milton Keynes and Coventry City councils, vehicle manufacturers Jaguar Land Rover, Ford and Tata, automotive technology specialist RDM, transport systems specialist Horiba-Mira, and Oxford and Cambridge universities.

The three main elements were: 1) The Cars programme, focused on the development and trialling of connected and autonomous passenger cars; 2) The Pods programme, focused on the development and trialling of a new form of last-mile electric-powered pod vehicle; and 3) The Cities programme, aimed at helping cities to understand how they could best facilitate and benefit from automated transport systems.

JLR, Tata and RDM all praised it for significantly advancing their autonomous capabilities, with Emergency Vehicle Warning and Collaborative Parking judged to have been particularly effective. The Electronic Emergency Brake Light feature was also considered to have strong potential.

Just as importantly, the report highlighted five major challenges:

  • The levels of integration with road infrastructure, including traffic signals
  • Issues related to time synchronisation between system components
  • Extra care to be taken during testing in areas where pedestrians cross
  • The need to correct for road surface imperfections compared to 2D maps
  • The current imprecision of GPS for lane-level localisation

Tim Armitage, project director at Arup, said: “The success of the project was primarily down to the vast and varied expertise of the UK Autodrive consortium partners, and to the collaborative manner in which we worked from day one.”

You can download the full report here

AV: adult video, autonomous vehicle or both?

It was inevitable, but it has still caused a stir – a couple have filmed a sex tape while travelling in a Tesla Model X in Autopilot mode on a US highway.

Media outlets across the globe reported that amateur porn star Taylor Jackson, of Los Angeles, performed the dangerous deed with her boyfriend and posted it on adult site PornHub.

She then took to Twitter to inform Tesla boss Elon Musk: “Holy shit, I made @Tesla the #1 search on pornhub.”

While Tesla warns all its drivers to “stay alert, drive safely and be in control of the vehicle at all times”, Musk couldn’t resist commenting: “Turns out there’s more ways to use Autopilot than we imagined… shoulda seen it coming…”

Two people who did predict it were UK academics Scott Cohen, of the University of Surrey, and Debbie Hopkins, of the University of Oxford.

In their 2018 paper Autonomous vehicles and the future of urban tourism, they noted: “While shared connected and autonomous vehicles (SCAVs) will likely be monitored to deter passengers having sex or using drugs in them, and to prevent violence, such surveillance may be rapidly overcome, disabled or removed.

“Moreover, personal CAVs will likely be immune from such surveillance. Such private CAVs may also be put to commercial use, as it is just a small leap to imagine Amsterdam’s Red Light District on the move.”

The development is also a blow for the acronym AV in the driverless world.

Already facing stiff completion from CASE (connected, autonomous, shared and electric), SDC (self-driving car) and others, it must now contend with adult video being a related search term.

SMMT report promotes UK leadership in driverless cars

A new report by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and Frost & Sullivan claims the UK is “among the front runners” in developing and deploying driverless cars.

Published in April 2019, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: Winning the Global Race to Market highlights the UK driverless car road trials and identifies three key factors: 1) enabling regulations; 2) enabling infrastructure; and 3) market attractiveness.

SMMT chief executive, Mike Hawes, said: “Over the coming decade, today’s driver assistance technology and the next generation of autonomous systems are set to save 3,900 lives and create 420,000 new jobs across automotive and adjacent sectors – with an overall annual £62 billion economic benefit to the UK by 2030.”

Head of mobility at Frost & Sullivan, Sarwant Singh, said: “The UK has a near perfect blend of attributes that will help it capitalise on CAV deployment. These include a forward-thinking approach to legislation, advanced technology infrastructure, highly skilled labour force and technology savvy customer base.”

A big caveat, according to Hawes, is the need to leave the EU in an orderly fashion.

You can read the full report here.

UK driverless car road trials in Cambridge, London and Manchester

Following the Department for Transport’s announcement that the UK is planning advanced driverless car road trials – meaning no safety driver – here’s an update on the latest tests currently taking place in English cities.

In Bromley and Croydon, FiveAI is operating five self-driving cars day and night with safety drivers at the wheel.

The plan is to roll-out an autonomous car-sharing service, with passenger trials scheduled to begin next year.

FiveAI’s co-founder and chief executive, Stan Boland, said: “Safety and trusted partnerships are crucial to everything we do. We’ll continue to keep residents informed along the way, working closely with the London Boroughs and Transport for London.”

The company was previously part a project known as StreetWise – a consortium awarded more than £12m by the Government to develop autonomous car software.

In Cambridge, Wayve is developing a system which relies on cameras, a sat-nav and machine learning, rather than hand-coded rules.

This video shows a Wayve vehicle with a backup driver navigating complex urban streets it has never encountered before:

A Wayve vehicle with a backup driver navigating complex urban streets

The company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Alex Kendall, said: “We’ve built a system which can drive like a human, using only cameras and a sat-nav. This is only possible with end-to-end machine learning. With each piece of data we’re able to train our system to get better and better.”

This appears to fly in the face of the majority view that radar and lidar are vital connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technologies. Time will tell.

Looking ahead, Project Synergy is planning to run three autonomous, electric Westfield sports cars on public roads between Stockport Railway Station and Manchester Airport from January 2020.

Clare Cornes, intelligent mobility manager at Westfield, said: “Safety is paramount on this project.”

We certainly hope so!

Shock news: driverless cars threaten driving jobs

The impact of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) on jobs is a hot topic this week.

In Northern Ireland, a study by the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) concluded that 58% of jobs are at risk of “substantial change” due to advances in AI, robotics and other technologies.

The report highlighted a re-emergence of ‘automation anxiety’ and concerns about the future of work.

However, it also asserted that “while automation may destroy some jobs, an equal or greater number of jobs will likely be created in the aftermath.”

Nice use of “likely”.

In India, The News Minute reported on a keynote speech by the country’s Telecom Secretary, Aruna Sundararajan.

“Adoption of digital technology has proved to be a great democratiser and leveller,” she said. “But digital is also throwing up many challenges and there are no easy answers to them.

“There are various estimates about the rate at which jobs are becoming irrelevant – from 10% to a high of 70%.”

Sundararajan suggested that a universal basic income could be part of the solution.

“The idea of providing universal basic income is gaining ground because a lot of Silicon Valley leaders are pushing for it,” she said.

In the UK, research by MoneySuperMarket found that automation of driving jobs could trigger large-scale redundancies by as early as 2023.

Seán Kemple, director of sales at Close Brothers Motor Finance, noted: “The courier service industry is already anticipating huge changes, particularly for last-mile delivery, and not much further down the line the taxi industry is likely to change too.”

One reassuring point which cropped up in the University of Michigan’s Self-Driving Cars Teach-Out was the continuing need for humans in roles variously described as operators, attendants, concierges or guides.

This dovetails with a recent Opinium survey for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which found that 77% believe driverless vehicles in the UK should have someone ready to take the wheel.

Ben Lawson, vice president of mobility and project development at Enterprise Rent-A-Car UK, said: “There are many elements that will determine when driverless cars become mainstream including the technology itself, consumer attitudes, affordability and public policy.”

Something akin to the long-running argument about the need for train guards seems – to coin a phrase – likely.

Stagecoach unveils UK’s first full-sized driverless bus

One of the UK’s leading transport operators, Stagecoach, is testing a full-sized autonomous bus at a depot in Manchester.

Working in partnership with vehicle manufacturer Alexander Dennis and technology company Fusion Processing, the first public demonstration was held on Monday 18 March.

Stagecoach chief executive, Martin Griffiths, said: “This is an exciting project to trial autonomous technology on a full-sized bus for the first time in the UK. 

“Our employees are the beating heart of our business and I believe that will remain the case, but the world is changing fast, particularly where new technology is involved.”

Stagecoach operates over 8,000 vehicles and employs 18,000 people in the UK.

Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing, added: “Our CAVstar sensor and control system has now been successfully applied to vehicles ranging in size from two-seater electric vehicles right up to a 43-seat bus.

“Our advanced driver-assistance systems already offer improved operational safety for buses and HGVs, and we anticipate further new ADAS products as spin offs from the autonomous vehicle (AV) bus project.”

The driverless dilemma: touchstone or red herring?

Much of the debate about autonomous vehicles (AVs) has focused on the driverless dilemma – who to save, or kill, in no-win crash situations.

This subject is often explored via a thought experiment called The Trolley Problem, which imagines a runaway train and five people tied to the track. If you intervene by pulling a lever, the train will switch to a track with just one person.

Numerous studies, notably The Moral Machine, suggest broad agreement that: 1) humans should be saved over animals; 2) the lives of many should outweigh the few; and 3) the young should have precedence over the old.

However, in this article for Robotics Business Review, Julian De Frietas, of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and Sam Anthony, of Perceptive Automata (a company specialising in human behaviour in robotic systems), question the merit of applying such thinking to driverless cars.

“There are two problems with the trolley dilemma – first of all, it’s a distraction to the work that is being done on making AVs safer, and second, it has this built-in assumption that AVs can see the world perfectly,” says Anthony.

Initially this seems cavalier, an affront to the mainstream view that the driverless dilemma is vital to the debate. It is certainly an issue that cuts through with the public.

De Frietas goes on to assert that such dilemmas – situations where you have the time to make a considered decision as to who to kill but can’t use that time to avert it – are rare.

A better approach, he argues, is aiming to avoid harm: “That means that if most of what you’re doing on the road is just avoiding more mundane things, then optimizing to that goal will cover you.”

There’s a lot to digest there, particularly considering the infamous comments reportedly made by a Mercedes-Benz executive at the 2016 Paris Motor Show about saving the driver and passengers over pedestrians.

On a personal note, I’ve been driving for 25 years and have only found myself in something resembling a trolley dilemma once. A car pulled out in front me – pedestrians left, solid traffic right. I almost managed to stop but went into the side of the car that pulled out. We all walked away but, believe me, one trolley dilemma in a lifetime is more than enough.

In the same situation, what will a driverless car’s programming tell it to do? Will this vary across different makes and models? Should vehicle owners have any control over the settings?

Perhaps Anthony and De Frietas deserve credit for scrutinising the driverless dilemma, but their stance only reaffirms my view that it should be the touchstone for all autonomous vehicle development.

Aurrigo and Blind Veterans UK join forces for world first driverless test

Coventry-based autonomous vehicle specialist Aurrigo has partnered with Blind Veterans UK for what it says is the world’s first real-world driverless trial involving disabled people.

As outlined in the University of Michigan’s teach-out, self-driving cars have huge potential to help the blind community.

Starting in April 2019, a six-month programme of testing will explore how they can deliver improved mobility and independence.

An Aurrigo four-seater pod has been specially adapted with the needs of vision-impaired people in mind. For example, with improved lighting, prominent colours on grab rails and voice activated controls.

It will travel at a maximum 15mph around the charity’s training and rehabilitation centre in Ovingdean, near Brighton.

“Having feedback from Blind Veterans UK and their members taking part will be a massive boost in improving our pods and making them more user-friendly for people with disabilities,” said Miles Garner, sales and marketing director at Aurrigo.

Major General Nick Caplin CB, chief executive of Blind Veterans UK, added: “So many of the blind veterans we support say that not being able to drive is one of the most significant things that hits you when you lose your sight. It’s another way of losing independence and can make people feel more isolated.

“Anything we can do to assist and feedback on this new technology will hopefully benefit the lives of our veterans and the wider disabled community in the years to come.” 

Aurrigo has already hit the headlines this year for its impressive work with Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) using light projections to communicate the intentions of self-driving vehicles – for example, stopping or turning left or right.

Aurrigo and Jaguar Land Rover light projection test

“The trials are about understanding how much information a self-driving vehicle should share with a pedestrian to gain their trust,” said Pete Bennett, future mobility research manager at JLR.

“This pioneering research is forming the basis of ongoing development into how self-driving cars will interact with people in the future.”