Saturday 10 December 2016

Tech catching up on the 46A

Driverless vehicles will change how we commute, and the journey begins with public transport, writes Campbell Spray

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

NEXT STOP: A driverless bus developed by French firm EasyMile is to go into operation at a business park in California and a park in Singapore. The EZ10 is operated entirely autonomously and doesn’t even have a steering wheel.
NEXT STOP: A driverless bus developed by French firm EasyMile is to go into operation at a business park in California and a park in Singapore. The EZ10 is operated entirely autonomously and doesn’t even have a steering wheel.

The big wage hikes for the Luas drivers in the capital - followed by the offer after a number of nasty strike days to Dublin Bus employees - won't be the end of the issues facing the nation's transport system. Far from it.

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Bus Eireann wages and restructuring are up in the air, and the train drivers are likely to be getting very Bolshie very soon. Why wouldn't they. Like everyone they lost a lot during the big collapse, although not as much as many in the private sector where the job, pay and pension attrition was absolutely brutal. Yet the public sector transport unions still have a unity of purpose and, above all, muscle. Yet this won't last, like in newspapers and many other sectors the pace of change will soon catch them out. Part of the great debate of the Dublin Bus drivers was that they do a far more difficult job than those on the Luas who "just have to slide a lever forwards and backwards". Bus divers have to cope with all sorts of hazards as well as unruly passengers, poor pedestrian behaviour and difficult weather conditions.

However, much as the move to driverless cars could transform our transport system, it makes even more sense to develop trains, trams and buses without drivers as there probably isn't anything easier to automate than something that runs on tracks at set speeds and stops at designated areas. After trains and trams are robotised, then it makes sense to go for buses which again go on exactly the same routes everyday at much the same speed and make designated clearly marked stops.

That every home now can probably afford an automatic vacuum cleaner or grass mower that will glide around objects and go on predetermined and learnt routes shows what can be achieved with very little expense. That most cars can now be supplied with anti- crash software just shows which direction the whole debate is going.

Driverless cars also promise to transform the market in ways that the incumbents will find bruising. Once driverless, the car can theoretically be kept in operation 24 hours a day, rather in the manner of a taxi, only without the human driver. Cars will thus become quite widely shared, with many choosing not to own one at all.

Regulators permitting, Google hopes to have a fully autonomous vehicle ready for sale by 2020. Uber is also pushing hard, with trials already under way in Pittsburgh of its own driverless technology. Uber has an ambitious goal: to own the road as no other.

If you summon an Uber in 10 years' time, you will probably get a car that drives itself. But then again, you may not be travelling in a car at all.

It has emerged that the taxi-hailing app is working on technology that would allow airborne passenger drones to fly its users short distances around cities, raising the prospect of a future in which skylines are dotted with Uber aircraft shuttling commuters back and forth.

"We want to offer our customers as many options as possible to move around," said Uber's chief product officer Jeff Holden recently in an outline of the nascent technology, which he believes could be viable within a decade.

Meanwhile, Japan is fast rolling out self-driving buses and it is the ideal location to pioneer vehicle automation.

The country boasts an immaculate and extensive road network. Much of the aging population relies on public transport, especially in the countryside, to get around. And that customer base is shrinking; fewer passengers equals fewer fares. As a result, only a third of the country's bus companies are profitable, forcing regional governments to step in to support them.

That's why SoftBank Group Corp is building driverless buses, which the Tokyo-based company estimates can cut operating costs by half.

Self-driving cars, like those being developed by Uber, Google and automakers have to be smart enough to traverse unpredictable environments. Buses, on the other hand, follow predetermined routes and can get away with a lower level of machine intelligence.

If the Japanese technology and telecommunications company succeeds, its automated buses could be fully navigating streets as soon as 2019. Finland, the United States, Netherlands and Greece have already tested driverless buses. Can the 46A be far behind?

  • Additional reporting by Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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