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.”

Must-see: Waymo’s driverless police stop

Waymo, the company which began life as Google’s self-driving car project back in 2009, has posted a 16-second video of perhaps the most impressive driverless feat to date.

The signal lights on a busy US crossroads are out, so a policeman is stood in the middle of the junction directing traffic – illustrated by the yellow box in the graphic.

The Waymo driverless car stops and waits for the officer to wave it across – see the speeded-up film in the bottom right.

Waymo self-driving car navigates a police controlled intersection

Adding to its reputation as the world leader in autonomous vehicles, in October 2018 Waymo revealed that its self-driving cars have already driven over 10 million miles on public roads.

Must-see: Mercedes Vision Urbanetic concept gets two million views on YouTube

A short film by Mercedes-Benz about its Vision Urbanetic mobility concept has been viewed over two million times on YouTube.

The 1min 38sec video published last September showcases a self-driving, electrically-powered chassis with switchable bodies.

It can be used as a ride-sharing vehicle with space for up to 12 passengers, or as a goods transporter with space for 10 pallets.

Leaping off the drawing board, a scale version of the car was on display at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Mercedes says it can reduce traffic flows, take the pressure off strained city infrastructures and contribute to an improved quality of urban life.

Most small businesses expect their vehicles to be electric by 2030 and driverless by 2040

55% of small enterprises think their fleets will be fully autonomous within 20 years, with 38% expecting it to happen in half that time, according to new research by the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi light commercial vehicle (LCV) business.

In a survey of 3,257 small businesses in the UK, USA, China, France, Mexico, Australia and Japan, 66% also predicted that their fleets would be fully electric within 20 years, with 50% expecting it to happen in half that time.

35% said they were already using smarter technology in their fleets, with efficiency improvements and cost savings the main motivations.

30% said the key benefit of connectivity would be the ability to communicate with the people they’re delivering to.

“We recognize the importance of smart technology to increase efficiency and continue to work together to develop connected and autonomous vehicles that cater to the needs of business fleets of all shapes and sizes,” said Ashwani Gupta, senior vice president of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi LCV business.

Between now and 2022, the alliance says it will launch 12 new zero-emission vehicles, utilising new common electric vehicle platforms. Over the same period, it plans to introduce up to 40 models with autonomous features, although equipment levels will vary.

Online teach-out gives bite-sized answers to driverless car questions

If you’ve got a couple of hours to digest important driverless car questions, try this online course from the University of Michigan: Self-Driving Cars Teach-Out.

The university’s Ann Arbor campus is home to the 32-acre Mcity test facility, the first purpose-built proving ground for connected and automated vehicles (CAVs).

Carrie Morton, deputy director of Mcity, describes it as “the ultimate sandbox”, a place to foster collaboration with industry, government and academic partners.

Following a quick overview of the key on-board technologies – sensors, lidar, GPS etc – the university’s experts get into the nitty gritty of their specialisms.

Liz Gerber, professor of public policies, sets the scene, saying: “The promise of driverless vehicles is super exciting for communities and for society. We talk about the promise of reduced congestion, increased mobility options and enhanced safety and convenience.”

Professor Matthew Johnson Roberson discusses the fragility of artificial intelligence (AI) in dealing with new systems, the challenge of getting from 95% to 99.99% accuracy, and the importance of failing gracefully in the event of an error.

Professor Dan Crane looks at balancing competition, differentiation and standardisation, asserting that we should encourage “a thousand flowers to bloom”, because no one yet knows which technologies will work best.

Ian Williams, inaugural fellow for the Law & Mobility Program, addresses privacy concerns and the ability to change settings. He also raises the possibility of motorists being encouraged out of driving via the prohibitive cost of insurance.

Big picture thinking comes from Alex Murphy, assistant professor in sociology, who considers the profound impacts of a lack of transportation – from the kinds of jobs people can take to the schools they can access. “It has huge implications for inequality,” she says.

Lionel Robert, associate professor in the School of Information, predicts that we’ll see level five, fully autonomous, go anywhere CAVs “in our lifetime”. He focusses on giving consumers “accurate trust” in the technology, not under- or over-trust.

One reassuring point which crops up time and again is the continuing need for humans – from John the safety conductor on the Mcity Shuttle, to roles variously described as truck operators, fleet attendants, concierges and guides.

This evolution could potentially help to offset the fear that driverless technology will immediately put people out of a job, a belief which has been blamed for attacks on self-driving test cars.

CAV’s potential to help the blind community was also particularly thought-provoking.

Deadly driverless car crashes

Probably the highest profile fatal crash involving a driverless car occurred in Arizona in March 2018.

An Uber test car, in autonomous mode but with a safety driver, hit a 49-year-old homeless woman in the city of Tempe.

Elaine Herzberg was walking with a bicycle and not on a crossing. It was the first reported fatal crash in the US involving a self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian.

Fast forward nearly a year and the University of Michigan has unveiled a new project to predict pedestrian movements with greater accuracy.

“Prior work in this area has typically only looked at still images,” said Ram Vasudevan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It wasn’t really concerned with how people move in three dimensions.”

By studying things like gait pace, foot placement and the symmetry of arms and legs, the team attempt to predict the future locations of one or several pedestrians up to 50 yards from the vehicle.

“If a pedestrian is playing with their phone, you know they’re distracted,” said Vasudevan. “Their pose and where they’re looking is telling you a lot about their level of attentiveness. It is also telling you a lot about what they’re capable of doing next.”

Previously, the most notorious driverless crash was also in the US, in 2016, when a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode smashed into a truck’s trailer, killing the car’s 40-year-old driver.

There have been numerous close shaves too.

Just last week in St. John’s, Canada, a driverless car reportedly set off at high-speed down a residential street, jumped a snow bank and slammed into a nearby garage.

Incredibly, no one was hurt. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) is investigating.

UK drops to 7th in Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index

A new report by KPMG shows the UK has dropped two places, to seventh, in its Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index.

While this could be interpreted as a blow to the UK government’s commitment to be at the forefront of driverless technology, KPMG was at pains to emphasize that this was “only due to high-performers Norway and Finland joining the index”.

Countries were assessed on 25 different measures across four pillars – policy & legislation, technology & innovation, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance.

KPMG 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index image
KPMG 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index image

As last year, The Netherlands ranked #1, praised for its efforts to run platoons of driverless trucks on major ‘Tulip Corridor’ routes from Amsterdam to Antwerp and Rotterdam to the Ruhr valley. Singapore ranked #2 thanks to its test town for driverless vehicles.

Sarah Owen-Vandersluis, head of public mobility strategy for KPMG in the UK, commented: “The UK has made a lot of inroads with big investments, a committed government and world-leading policy; it has seen many positive announcements regarding both private sector initiatives and local and central government strategies.”

In a separate paper – Mobility 2030: Transforming the mobility landscape – KPMG highlighted three key disruptive forces: 1) Electric vehicles (EVs) and alternative powertrains; 2) Connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs); and 3) On-demand mobility services.