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Why technologists must recognize the cultural barriers to autonomous transport


Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton June 22, 2023
Summary:
A techUK event talked up the opportunities of connected and automated vehicles, but, once again, failed to address the technology’s cultural and psychological aspects.

highway

In UK parlance, Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) is the group of technologies that stretches from connected cars – vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, and vehicle-to-everything (V2V, V2I, V2X) – through to new forms of electric personal mobility, public transport, and autonomous and automated vehicles, including ones with no user in charge (NUiC). 

The UK has long seen CAM technologies as sitting alongside robotics, AI, quantum computing, green energy systems, and smart, electric air transport in a coherent vision for economic renewal. Or at least, it did have an integrated approach until former Prime Minister (and now former MP) Boris Johnson scrapped the Industrial Strategy that had been greenlit by his predecessor, Theresa May.

But the vision for CAM still exists in today’s more fragmented industrial policy. And this year has seen publication of the UK Connected and Automated Mobility Roadmap to 2035 , updating the previous Roadmap, published in 2019. 

The document beats a clear path towards the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of CAM as the world begins to shake off its dependency on fossil fuels. Pervasive connectivity, electrification, autonomy, and the de-carbonization of transport (including of the supply chain) are among the key trends. 

So, why the update? The answer, of course, is the changed world in which we find ourselves after four years of the pandemic’s impact.

Mark Cracknell is Programme Director, CAM, at Zenzic, the organisation created by government and industry to keep the UK in the vanguard of innovations in personal and public mobility. Speaking at a techUK event on connected transport, he said:

We're not necessarily in a ‘no road building’ program these days, but to maximize the road space, we have to recognise that a better, more efficient use of it is essential. And probably the pre-pandemic view of ride sharing is one solution to that. But these days the propensity to share is an open question.

Societal changes and impacts like these should always be front of mind, he explained. It is not just about adopting technology ‘because it is there’:

So, the big question when we think about autonomy and conductivity coming into our vehicles, fleets, and transport services, is: How are we going to use it? How are we going to live with this technology? 

Is it only coming because it is being pushed for its own sake? Is it Are we simply going to have to accept it? Or should we pay more attention and be proactive in harnessing that technology to deliver the right benefits?

Benefits

So, what are those benefits? At this point, Cracknell repeated the oft-used justification for self-driving cars: they are, theoretically at least, less dangerous than human drivers – or will be eventually:

Safety is one of the primary ones. Depending on which statistics you read, upwards of 80% of incidents that occur on the road have some contributing factor due to human error.

Indeed, that’s an understatement. Figures from the US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) say that 94-96% of all road traffic accidents are caused by human error – an extraordinary figure if you consider that there are 1.3 million road deaths worldwide every year.

Less often quoted is the number of injuries from road accidents: 50 million a year. So, for every 1,000 vehicles on the road, one person dies and 20 are hurt. A persuasive argument for safer technologies when there are 1.4 billion vehicles on the road globally – nearly 20% of them in America.

But the challenge is that, as Gary Numan famously observed, people feel safe in their cars – even if it is illusory. Cars have cultural and psychological dimensions, especially in the US where ‘the lone driver on the freeway’ is a restatement of the American Dream: the modern equivalent of the cowboy on his horse. 

Breaking down those psychological barriers will be a much tougher challenge than the technology industry seems to understand. Instinctively, driverless cars don’t feel safe, even if they are. This means that drivers are being asked to trade their (often misplaced) sense of freedom – they overlook the traffic jams and roadworks – for one of perceived helplessness.

This is not something that technologists talk about. Instead, their focus shifts to the time wasted by driving – and, because we are talking about automation, inevitably to the productivity gains offered by CAM. Cracknell said:

We know that a lot of the time we spend on the road network is unproductive, and we can unlock that through technology, enabling greater productivity for people going about their daily lives.

Productivity

But the implication of such statements is, why spend valuable time driving, when you could be working in your vehicle instead, devoting even more hours to your workplace? But don’t some people like to escape the daily grind for an hour or two? Don’t people talk to their families in their cars, or listen to music, radio, and podcasts? 

Productivity is the wrong message, therefore. And that viewpoint also overlooks some important facts. For many people, driving is their work. According to the most recent US Census, there are 3.5 million truck drivers in the US alone, and a shortage of 80,000 drivers for available jobs. In total, it is estimated that over five million Americans earn their living by driving; in some states, it is the biggest source of employment.

In the UK, an estimated 268,000 people were employed as HGV drivers alone in 2020-21 – figures that may be unreliable because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Statista estimates that, in 2019, there were 284,000 UK van drivers, 121,000 bus and coach drivers, 227,000 taxi/cab drivers and chauffeurs (roughly the same as the US, revealing America’s greater dependency on owning cars), and 32,000 driving instructors. 

In total, therefore, the UK has nearly one million professional drivers – not including couriers. Some estimates suggest there may be 15,000-17,000 courier and local delivery companies in the UK too, employing an unknown number of people who may be desperate for work.

Addressing the employment impacts of self-driving or automated vehicles is a must, therefore, though we should acknowledge that new technologies create jobs, services, companies, and opportunities. It is rarely as simple as ‘machine in, human out’.

But there are some undoubted benefits of CAM technologies, of course. For example, the environmental plusses of ridding our cities of petrol-guzzling cars and vans, many of which make unnecessary journeys. And of rethinking our urban spaces around the needs of people – the citizens who actually live and work there – rather than vehicles.

Indeed, the personal benefits of greater on-demand mobility would be legion, said Cracknell:

We know that a huge challenge, certainly in London, is the needs of a very diverse population. A great number of people have mobility needs, so how do we ensure that we provide a transport system which is equitable, which satisfies the needs that a great, diverse range of users have? If we can leverage the technology in the right way, perhaps we can provide a greater equity and access to transport.

In this way, people of all ages, social groups, and (dis)abilities may gain much greater access to mobility. Then he added:

Finally, the opportunity for the UK has the potential to be a large economic one. But, if we simply allow the technology to land, we might not be the owners. We might be the takers rather than the makers of that technology. We might miss our opportunity to really grow a thriving ecosystem here in the UK. 

So, we believe there are great opportunity areas – technology that we need to harness if we want to use it in the right way. And we want to make sure that we are solving real-world problems, rather than just putting the technology in.

During lockdown, we recognized the potential of being able to get things delivered when we couldn't leave our houses, and recognized that the movement of goods around our own network is of critical importance to the economy.

My take

A worthy and important document that rewards detailed reading (access Zenzic’s Roadmap via the link in the report, above). However, Cracknell’s in-person presentation revealed the holes in the messaging, rather than in the technology or the undoubted opportunity.

If the public is to be persuaded that autonomous transport and other CAM solutions are the right choices for our communities, then technologists urgently need to understand and address the psychological, cultural, and employment barriers. 

Simply talking tech, productivity, and mobility is not enough to win the argument – even if the statistics are persuasive, and the environmental advantages obvious.

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