Waymo puts into circulation its robotaxi. Autonomous and driverless taxis will tread the streets of Arizona in a few weeks. However, are cities ready to accommodate autonomous cars?
Call a taxi, get on board and arrive at your destination. What’s the news? There is no driver. What you have just used is not only a taxi, but a driverless robotaxi developed by Waymo, the Silicon Valley company founded in 2009 within Google as a project for the development of self-driven cars, which became independent in 2016. After 10 years of research and development work and over 10 Million miles on the road, Waymo’s robotaxis are ready to start operating in Phoenix, Arizona. Ashley Nunes on Wired (warning: paywall may apply), among others, talks about it. The magazine welcomes the news with a question about the introduction of autonomous vehicles: why are we still so unprepared? We will comment on the article together with Linda Napoletano, R&D Director at Deep Blue and an expert in Human Factors and automation.
Driverless or humanless?
Wired’s first question concerns an issue that we have already addressed in our blog: driverless is very different from humanless.
“It is misleading to think that automation can replace man. Rather, we are witnessing an integration between human workforce and autonomous machines. We see this, for instance, with the introduction of robotics in the industrial sector or the medical-surgical one. Automated systems are able to replace man in the simplest and most repetitive operations. But they still cannot make decisions or solve problems, operations where human beings continue to be irreplaceable.
Also in the aviation sector, which has been working for years to automate air traffic control and pilotage, pilots and air traffic controllers (ATCOs) have not been replaced. Instead, they have been supported by technologies that can perform certain tasks independently, making their work easier. Especially in dangerous situations, it is up to humans to take control and make the right decisions. This is also the case in the transport sector and specifically in the automotive sector: self-driving cars, in particular situations, will go back to being controlled by men.”
The question is, therefore: if human intervention continues to be indispensable, what do Waymo and other car manufacturers intend to do with driverless vehicles? According to Wired, the solution might be remote control. Instead of seating in the car, teleoperators will work from a control room; and instead of driving one car, they will control dozens of cars, perhaps hundreds, intervening when necessary.
“Remote control could also be a solution for road traffic control”, Napoletano confirms. “The idea is the one behind air traffic: a space divided into sectors, each under the responsibility of a controller. Furthermore, the same line of development is also emerging for drone traffic. In this case, we have a pilot on the ground who, instead of controlling a single drone, will remotely control a whole fleet. A system that will take a few more years to be developed.”
It’s not easy, however, to transfer a tried-and-tested air traffic system to the road. This is because planes move in a more structured system than the one in which cars move. It is therefore not enough to simply make each car intelligent, if we then insert them into a city where infrastructures are not suitable for autonomous driving. On the contrary, it is necessary to develop autonomous cars and infrastructures simultaneously, and to review the entire concept of urban transport.
“Unmanned cars can be a huge opportunity for the entire city mobility system to design a new model of city. The key to all this could be the sharing economy. In the context of the European project Mobility4EU, which came to a close in December 2018, we envisaged cities designed around citizens: how to reduce the number of cars in favour of public transport – also autonomous? How to eliminate pollutants and produce zero-emission vehicles? By what means can we support mobility for the most vulnerable and encourage the development of green areas? How to encourage the process to redesign vehicles to create hybrid forms of transport which may, for example, carry both passengers during the day and goods at night?” continues Napoletano.
“Then, there are the major issues of interoperability and harmonisation of modes and means of transport between Member States. This is necessary to integrate multimodal transport at borders. Another issue is the development of sustainable mobility services, focused on public rather than private transport. The quantum leap would be to reverse the perspective and start thinking in terms of passenger flows rather than vehicles, whose number will have to decrease.
We believe that these lines of research should guide the development of mobility in the coming period. Cities designed according to these principles are, in fact, cities that also prepare for the introduction of autonomous vehicles.”
Human Factors and safety issues
Another issue brought up by Wired concerns the classification of teleoperators who will remotely control robotaxis. Are they to be considered in all respects as transport workers? If so, they will have to enjoy the breaks and rest periods guaranteed to all transport workers. This would ensure greater safety on the roads, although it would reduce profit margins for companies.
“The question is more complex than this. The experience we have gained with ATCOs tells us that forms of stress and fatigue vary depending on the situation. When we move from executive tasks to decision making and problem solving tasks, we develop different forms of stress and fatigue. Adopting shifts can treat these only in part. In ATCOs, this stress can result in states of anxiety and panic, especially in situations of intense traffic, therefore of great complexity and responsibility. To solve this problem, we must address its root causes, with specific training and encouraging a strong culture of safety. Future Sky Safety, for example, is a European research programme developing new tools and approaches for safety in air transport. In the context of this programme, we have recently launched the Safeorg.euwebsite, which contains tools to support organisations operating in the field of aviation safety.
On the other hand, we have also taken part in the European project STRESS. We have collaborated with the research group BrainSigns, a spin-off of La Sapienza University of Rome, to measure the mental workload of air traffic controllers using neurophysiological indicators. These analyses made use of interfaces and automated technologies to promptly support ATCOs in certain critical phases, reducing their workload. An excellent example of human-machine integration.”
Wired poses one last, important question: what direction will politics give to this transition towards autonomous cars? According to Wired, autonomous vehicles will lead to significant benefits for communities. But this will only occur if the safety and needs of citizens go hand in hand with the demand for profit of cars and autonomous technologies manufacturers. The direction indicated by politicians, with the drafting of appropriate laws, will be decisive in order to ensure this.
“The transition to autonomous cars will undoubtedly have to be guided by adequate laws, based on end users needs. It should also focus on environmental sustainability and safety. That is why Mobility4EU has launched the European Forum on Transport and Mobility, a discussion space that brings together the most important stakeholders of freight and passenger transport, as well as those of the transport industry, to give voice to users and identify needs and guidelines for future mobility”, concludes Napoletano.