The transport sector has always unleashed the creativity of engineers, inventors, and problem solvers of all kinds. But even the greatest innovations don’t always come to life. After the early excitement of the public and investors, the vast majority (70% to 97%) of new ideas do not survive the “trough of disillusionment,” and only a lucky few end up being widely adopted.
This certainly applies to the field of transport automation. Despite impressive technological strides, attempts to automate transport operations are usually met with reactions that can range from mild skepticism to downright hostility.
Yet automated transport solutions could bring significant benefits to both developing and developed countries, including lower operating costs, greater flexibility, and higher safety standards. If we get it right, automation could ultimately make transport “smarter” and address many adverse consequences of our current mobility system: road fatalities, pollution, congestion, time and productivity losses, etc.
But there is more. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of building stronger mobility systems and minimizing human interaction in certain critical sectors like transport. In light of this experience, automation could be a powerful way to create stronger transport systems and be better prepared to face future shocks.
So, where do we stand on automation? What are the key challenges and opportunities that may impact progress in the field? What’s in it for people, countries, and economies?
To address these questions, let’s take a closer look at the history of elevators—a great example of an “automation success story.” We will then move on to automated train operations and self-driving cars, two technologies that hold great promise for the future of transport.
Elevators: an automation success story
It is intuitive that innovative developments move from simple, obvious improvements to more advanced solutions or capabilities as the technology matures and scales. Unless a deeper exploration of the “low-hanging fruits” reveals hidden complexity, the feasibility of a new idea may be questioned if the trend of progressing from simple to complex solutions isn’t followed.
Elevators are a rare example of a technology that was fully automated over the last 50 years.
When first introduced in the 1850s, every elevator required its own human operator. Elevator automation technology were ready by the early 1900s, but the public refused to ride elevators without an operator for another 50 years.
The tipping point in the elevator automation was the 1945 strike of New York City’s elevator operators that costs the city more than $100M. Economic incentives and a massive effort to instill trust in the operatorless technology brought autonomous elevators into the mainstream, eliminating tens of thousands of elevator operators’ jobs as a result.
The ubiquitous introduction of passenger operated emergency equipment such as a stop button, alert bell, and a telephone played a pivotal role in persuading the public that they remained safe in an operatorless elevator car.
Tapping the potential of automated railways
After elevators, railway automation might seem like the next logical step. After all, elevators and trains share many similarities: both use cars on rails to move people, and passengers enter and exit the car through mechanical doors and remain in the car between stops. When first patented in 1859, elevators were even called “vertical railways” and had an actual car with benches to sit on.
In many ways, railways appear like the perfect candidate for automation. They are guided systems that usually operate on their own right-of-way in a tightly controlled environment, especially in the case of metros and other urban rail systems. So, why don’t we see the self-driving trains already?
But we do! London Underground’s Victoria line, which opened in 1967, was the first line to be operated with Automatic Train Operation (ATO). Sixty-four automated metro trains ran in 46 cities around the world in 2019. Line 4 of the Sao Paulo Metro, co-financed by the World Bank, is an example of the most modern subway lines in Latin America first to utilize driverless trains. Many of us ride automated shuttle trains within airports, transporting us between gate concourses and baggage claim. The critical feature of these ATOs is that they are closed systems – access to the track is restricted by tunnels, fences, or elevated platforms. By contrast, extending ATOs to open railway systems seems to be a challenging task, and most industry experts do not anticipate this happening anytime soon.
The estimated economic advantages of ATO are plentiful. Studies cite improved operational safety and lower rail fatalities with staff savings as large as 70%, and more than 30% improvement in energy efficiency. The space previously occupied by train operators could be utilized to accommodate more passengers. Train automation also provides elastic capacity (part of what drives the improved efficiency), allowing the adding of trains during peak hours and removing trains at night or on holidays. The estimated rate of return for train automation is 10% to 15%. What then prevents the broader adoption of ATO?
One often-cited reason is that an automated system needs to identify and react to obstacles that are far away because of the long-distance needed to stop a train safely. Railroad unions might object to the new technology due to the fear of losing jobs to autonomous trains, making ATO politically challenging to implement. The industry would need to overcome public fears that ATO is unsafe. And there is also the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument that further impedes interest in these systems.
Self-driving cars: the new frontier?
Each of these arguments applies to autonomous cars as well.
From a technical standpoint, self-driving cars raise a number of safety concerns that are much more complex to overcome than the potential issues of ATO. And unlike railways, where an entire line can transition to automatic operation all at once, autonomous cars would have to coexist with human-driven cars for many years.
As a result, there is still a great deal of fear about the prospect of transport automation, particularly when it comes to self-driving cars. Decisionmakers and members of the general public have pointed out a wide range of risks, from basic technical glitches to the possibility of widespread cyberattacks that could bring automated transport systems to a screeching halt.
Disruptions to the labor market are another major hurdle. Self-driving vehicles will likely face significant resistance from the millions of truck and taxi drivers whose jobs might be undermined by automation.
Circa 200 AD, Heron of Alexandria proposed a design of a self-driving vehicle, the Tripod of Hephaestus. Are two millennia sufficient for autonomous vehicle technology to mature? It took 50 years and a major strike to overcome the public fear of automatic elevators. The COVID-19 pandemic that puts a high premium on reducing infections while using car-sharing services could become a turning point for the self-driving car industry. In April 2020, Elon Musk announced Tesla’s would deploy 1 million self-driving “Robotaxis” by the end of the year. This plan might be overly optimistic if progress in train automation is indicative of the adoption of self-driving cars. But, “it is difficult to make predictions,” goes the Danish proverb, “especially about the future.”
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