“The future of transport is electric”

Jochen Eickholt Siemens Mobility CEOJochen Eickholt, the CEO of Siemens Mobility, talks about electric highways and bus networks and creating cities full of sensors that link up cars with their surroundings.


One of your projects at Siemens is electrifying motorways, so electric trucks can be used for long-distance freight, without even requiring batteries. Why are you convinced that the “eHighway”, as you call it, is the future of road freight?

Transport remains the last sector where fossil fuel dependency has not been substantially mitigated, making it a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. Electric mobility offers a variety of benefits here, including improved local air quality, fuel diversification into renewable sources to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and increased energy efficiency to lower operating costs. The eHighway combines resource-efficient railway technology with the flexibility of road transport.

How does this work in practice?

The adapted hybrid trucks are supplied with electricity from overhead contact lines. An active pantograph can automatically connect and disconnect with the contact line at speeds up to 90 km/h. The direct transmission of electric energy ensures an outstanding efficiency of 80 to 85 per cent from substation in-feed to the wheel. This is twice as high as that of conventional diesel engines. The eHighway also makes it possible to recover braking energy and store it on-board. It can also feed other trucks operating on the system or even feed the electricity back into the public grid. These energy savings translate into even higher system efficiency, lower emissions, and lower energy consumption. High efficiency is the backbone of future road freight transport as well as decarbonisation.

Talking about electric mobility, would you agree that it will play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions of  passenger transport?

The future of transport is electric, whether by rail or by road.  For metros, light rail and high-speed trains  electrification has been established for many years as a way to ensure highest energy efficiency while  minimizing local emissions. With the ongoing electrification of railroads all over the world, rail traffic has become increasingly emission free. According to a recent study by the International Railway Union (UIC), rail is the most emissions-efficient major transport mode. Electric trains powered by renewable energy can offer practically carbon-free journeys and transport.

In cities, eBuses will play a role similar to the one I just described for the eHighway and hybrid-driven trucks. They offer the same advantages -energy efficiency, local zero emissions and, thanks to modern control systems, an improved travel experience for passengers. This is why they are in a good position to help satisfy the increasing demand for sustainable transport solutions in cities at a time when growing transport volumes and limited expansion possibilities for transport routes pose ever more serious problems.

What kind of innovations do engineers have in store to make electrified public transport a regular sight?

It is possible for instance to equip buses with a flexible Offboard High Power Charger, which adds considerable flexibility to eBus services. The buses need to stop at the charging station only for a few minutes. The system is ideal for high-frequency operations, since the charging infrastructure can be used by several buses per hour. It would even work if the vehicles were produced by different manufacturers. This is no scenario for the distant future; in fact the system’s practical feasibility in daily operation is already being demonstrated – for instance in Vienna, Gothenburg or Hamburg.

Offboard High Power charger
Offboard High Power Charger in Hamburg (Foto: Siemens)

Everyone is talking about self-driving vehicles. What is your take on autonomous driving?

The next step in the evolution of green, safe and efficient public transport on roads will be self-driving shuttle buses. At present there are several pilot projects under way, in areas such as university campuses and still operating with a driver as a back-up. Over the long run, electric-powered self-driving cars will be the new norm for individual and shared traffic in our cities. They are safe, emission-free and silent. But there is still a long way to go – infrastructures are not ready for that phase yet.

 

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What needs to happen in terms of infrastructure?

 

Today, self-driving cars run well only under certain conditions,-  in a controlled environment and when the weather is right. The sensors fail when it rains or snows; and they also fail when the sun is too bright. Ans even though they already are quite powerful, sensors can’t see around the corner or through an object that is blocking the sensors sight. Today, the human driver serves as a “redundancy system” that makes up for these defects. But without someone at the wheel, the self-driving car would have only one option: to switch to safe mode in uncertain situations. This is not acceptable, because it means having to reduce speed radically or even stopping. Neither alternative is compatible with traffic regulations and the requirement not to hinder the flow of traffic. And, even worse, passengers wouldn’t accept driving in a slow and stuttering vehicle.

Overcoming these restrictions first of all needs a different perspective. We need to move from a car-centered approach to a systemic approach. There have to be sensors not only in the cars, but on the road as well to monitor and process what’s going on there – and communicate what they see to the cars. Similarly, cars need to communicate with one another and with the infrastructure around them. The combination of  complementary roadside sensor networks, a reliable real-time communication network such as 5G, and autonomous electric-powered cars will form a systemic transport net for future cities. But without the appropriate infrastructure, such a vision will remain  science fiction.


Jochen Eickholt leads the Mobility Division of global engineering giant Siemens AG. He studied electrical engineering at Aachen Technical University in Germany and Imperial College London, UK. He was appointed CEO of the Rail Automation Business Unit in 2009 and became CEO of the Mobility Division in 2012. On 31 May 2017 he will join ministers and other leaders for a discussion of  “The governance of transport in the digital economy” in the opening plenary of  ITF’s 2017 Summit on “Governance of Transport”

 

“We must reinvent mobility”

Michael_Cramer square CroppedMichael Cramer of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport talks about the imbalance between transport modes and the lessons from “Dieselgate”.


A lot of innovation is happening in transport right now – headlines about self-driving cars and electric vehicles abound. Are we finally on the path towards sustainable mobility?

Cramer: Billions are still invested in forms of mobility that ruin our climate. And it’s still all about cars. Without reinventing mobility we will not be able to stop climate change. A veteran German politician, former Munich mayor Hans-Jochen Vogel, said it well as early as 1972: “Cars are murdering our cities. Those who sow streets will harvest traffic”. Even if one day all cars will be electric, they will still be murdering our cities. When all cars are self-driving, they will still be murdering our cities. We must reduce emissions, sure. But it’s not only about energy efficiency, we must also reinvent mobility as a whole. 90% of car rides in German cities are shorter than 6 kilometers. These are ideal distances to go by tram, bus, bicycle or to walk. Electric cars are being subsidized with billions of Euros – indiscriminately, regardless of the real effect. By comparison, peanuts are given to support the use of electric bicycles or of cargo bikes, where they could have a real impact – cargo bikes could take over half of inner-city deliveries. Neither is there enough investment into the electrification of rail. The interests of car manufacturing are still dominating policy decisions.

But all car companies are busy rethinking their business models. Most are taking a broader view and branch out into areas like Mobility as a Service. Is your description not outdated?

The car industry must change much faster if it really wants to avoid the fate of the large energy utilities. Those ridiculed renewable energies for decades and now find themselves rather wrong-footed. Edzard Reuter, who was boss of Daimler-Benz from 1987 to 1995, warned thirty years ago that car manufacturers would only survive if by evolving into providers of mobility. In those days, Daimler-Benz not only built cars but

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“It’s still all about cars” (Foto: Oran Viriyincy)

also trucks, busses, trams, light rail trains, high-speed trains and even bicycles. His successor sold all those activities. Today, automotive companies are completely dependent on car sales, while they could have profited from the global boom in trams and light rail, for instance. I don’t see much innovation coming from big players who can hardly budge; it will be small and agile companies that plant the seeds of change.

What about the institutions that set the rules under which innovations either thrive or fail – do governments and regulatory agencies also need to become a little more agile?

Let me be a little cynical: No, they really don’t need additional agility. They need to discover what it means to be agile in the first place. One way of becoming more flexible, reactive and creative is to listen less to lobbyists. Take the “Dieselgate” scandal. We Green members of the European Parliament had to go to enormous lengths to get an inquiry going into the tempering with emissions tests. This inquiry has found EU member states and the European Commission guilty of negligence. The committee of inquiry proposed to set up an independent body with responsibility for controlling vehicle emissions. The Parliament’s transport committee, which I shared at the time, voted for this proposal as well. But it was  subsequently killed in the parliament by organised interests who lobbied deputies with the spectre of job losses in their region.

 

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Cycling freaks (Foto: ITF)

What is the lesson from that for you, as a policy maker?

It is hard to stomach that Diesel is still subsidised in many countries, despite being much more harmful in terms of NOx, NO2 and particular matter than standard petrol. Half a million people die as a result of particular matter, NOx and NO2 emissions every year in the European Union. Imagine our drinking water would be polluted like that – there would be immediate action. Not for the air we breathe. Europe’s political institutions – the Council, the Commission, the European Parliament – must work harder. If after this criminal fraud we can’t abolish subsidies for Diesel, we shouldn’t even be using the word “sustainability”.

Ultimately, are you an optimist or a skeptic regarding the future of human mobility?

A bit of both. We have all the opportunities in the world. When I started out in politics, I was treated as a freak because I advocated cycling as a mode of transport. But it is now a reality. In Copenhagen more than 50% of all inhabitants cycle to work. In Berlin, the number of cyclists has doubled over the past ten years, and without major policy interventions. People will do what is right, and that is my hope.


 

Michael Cramer is Member of the European Parliament for the Green Party.  He chaired the Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism from 2014-17 and remains on the committee. Cramer also heads the parliamentary platform “Rail Forum Europe” and initiated the 10 000 km-long Iron Curtain Bicycle Trail from the Baltic to the Black Sea. On 2 June he will discuss new business models in transport and  the role for authorities with other experts at ITF’s 2017 Summit on “Governance of Transport”. Part of the Summit pogramme is a bicylcle tour led by the mayor of Leipzig.

 

“Good governance is central to road safety”

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David Ward of Global NCAP, the worldwide network that test-crashes cars, talks about why governance matters for safe roads and how the new worldwide network of MPs he has helped launch will fight for reducing the number of traffic victims.


Why should road safety advocates get involved in discussing transport governance frameworks? Surely their priority ought to be the nuts and bolts of making roads and cars safer, and of teaching humans to take fewer risks in traffic?”

Good governance is central to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of road safety. Shared responsibility is the essence of the safe system approach to road injury prevention and sharing requires adherence to principles of good governance.  Having transparent and accurate road traffic injury data is essential to set priorities and develop policies that will work. Public support for road safety policies will also be stronger if they understand and trust the motivation for their introduction. That is why community engagement is a crucial aspect of good governance in road safety. If road traffic injury data is lacking or manipulated to understate the problem, then policy impacts will be negatively affected. And if corruption exists among agencies responsible for traffic rules, vehicle and driving licensing, this will totally undermine enforcement efforts to improve driver behavior. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the countries with the best performance in road safety generally have a similarly strong rating in good governance and respect for the rule of law.

It’s become a bit of a mantra among policy makers that engaging the public in decision-making leads to better results. Citizens may be more inclined to view such exercises as cosmetic. Can you give one or two examples where stakeholder dialogue has actually led to better road safety policies?

If you take police enforcement, for instance, there are some excellent examples where reforms designed to overcome corruption among traffic officers have been based around community engagement. This has helped to build public trust and support for stronger enforcement of measures such as seat belt wearing. Road safety campaigns in Costa Rica and Moldova have demonstrated this. Also in many countries support for action to curb speeding has been shown to be most successful when based on local community support.

You helped launch the “Global Network for Road Safety Legislators” last December. What void does this initiative fill, and what is its ambition?

 The Global Network for Road Safety Legislators intends to provide a platform to share good practice in road injury prevention among parliamentarians worldwide. Members of Parliament (MPs) can play a crucial role in the adoption of effective road safety policies and legislation. Their leadership can be decisive in helping to prevent the 3500 deaths that occur daily on the world’s road. On 8 May during the 2017 UN Global Road Safety Week the Network will launch a Manifesto #4 Road Safety which includes ten recommendations for parliamentarians worldwide to support the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety and the Sustainable Development Goal’s target to halve road deaths by 2020. The Manifesto, which has been approved by a cross-party group of senior MPs from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, the USA and the UK, also endorses a new ‘SAVE LIVES’ package of road injury prevention measures issued by the World Health Organisasafe-system-report-covertion. This policy package recommends that all UN Member States adopt of laws to tackle speeding, drink driving, non-use of motorcycle helmets, seat belts and child restraints, and the application of acceptable vehicle and road safety construction
standards. The MPs also recognize the importance of the Safe System approach and highlight the International Transport Forum’s recent report ‘Zero Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System’. They also propose a new global casualty reduction target to be achieved by 2030. Hopefully the Network and the Manifesto #4 Road Safety can provide some extra legislative muscle to eventually achieve a world free from road traffic fatalities.


David Ward is the Secretary General of the Global New Car Assessment Programme. (Global NCAP),  a worldwide network crash test programmes.  Youcan hear him speak on “UN Sustainable Development Goals: A game changer for transport planning”  on 31 May at the ITF’s 2017 Summit on “Governance of Transport”.

 

The Return of the Itinerant

By José Viegas

Autonomous road vehicles are attracting a lot of interest and  investment these days. It’s fair to predict that both the public discussion and the flows of money will keep growing. Attention is focused mainly on autonomous vehicles for passengers (think Google car, Tesla Autopilot) and automated road freight transport (think truck platooning, Otto).  Availability of those vehicles will lead to disruptive change in two other domains: private mobility on the one hand and professional transport services on the other.

Itinernat LibraryThe profound technological change implied by autonomous driving will inspire radical innovations in the way vehicles are used – as happened with phones, which have become much more than just devices to make calls since they became mobile. This innovation happens like a wave that feeds on itself until mature usage patterns emerge after something like 10 or 15 years. We must humbly recognise that nobody can claim today to have a clear vision of what those usages will be in one or two decades.

But that shouldn’t stop us of thinking boldly today about what might happen. Personally, I believe that itinerant services will be a new important usage area for autonomous vehicles. Such itinerant services were very popular in the 1950s and 60s in many countries, particularly with libraries. Those vans were serving areas that had few or no public libraries or bookshops, but still had many potential interested readers. I was an intensive user of a library van during my summer holidays for some years and have fond memory of the value it provided in terms of access to varied reading.

Changing places

Post offices or banks on wheels as well as rolling points-of-saleFood Truck grass for vegetables or clothes were also common in many regions, and sometimes still are. Recently, this phenomenon has seen something of a revival with the appearance of food trucks that bring high-end cuisine literally to the streets of hip urban quarters – in principle a modern, upmarket take on the Kebab or ice cream vans of yonder.

Automated vehicle will create a real opportunity for the resurgence of itinerant services, I believe. There seems to be a particularly strong case for them where the self-driving vehicle can provide some form of sophisticated equipment to which clients otherwise would have to travel. The most obvious examples that come to mind are in the health sector. The collection of medical samples fordiagnostics purposes, for instance, could probably be organised with specialised self-driving vehicles, very likely with remote human support from a medical professional.
Vehicle autonomy not only reduces the cost of provision of those itinerant services and makes them more accessible to its users. Self-driving vehicles also make it much easier to change locations during off hours – during night time or on public holidays, say. Entrepreneurial spirit, associated with technological innovations in other sectors than transport will have a quite field to explore. The whole field of “experiencing”, presently a key target of the travel industry, comes to mind in association with virtual reality and possibly differentiated catering evoking the places thus visited.

Mobile Post officeUltimately, marrying a time-honoured service idea with
modern self-driving technology could help bring a wide range of
sophisticated services that currently can only be accessed in more time consuming and often costly ways to people everywhere. The space of opportunity for business innovation is clearly there.


Forever circling

So my bet is that we will see the re-emergence of itinerant services, but possibly on a much larger scale and with greater variety than the good, old fashioned library on wheels I knew. Unlike my bookish van, which returned to its depot in the evening and left from there again the next morning (with a good night’s sleep for the driver in between), the trips of a self-driving itinerant service will no longer have a clear origin or destination. It will be forever circling around, with “destinations” simply a succession of events along the way. Some of its functions could probably be performed without even stopping.mobile hair cut

From a transport policy perspective, this will be a more efficient and less travel-intensive way of providing certain services. For other business models,  this approach will generate new markets and probably additional vehicle kilometres on the road.

What the combined effect of all this will be nobody can say. What we can say is that autonomous vehicles will spawn new forms of mobility, and that it will pay off to carefully monitor this development – to spot new business opportunities, but ultimately also to enable them to thrive in a transport system that is efficient, safe, user-friendly, not only once we reach a future steady state, but throughout the radical transformation transport is entering.

José Viegas is the Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum

Why it pays for cities to fight road deaths – and how they can get better at it

By Alexandre Santacreu, International Transport Forum

Every minute of every day, someone loses their life in a traffic crash on a city street. With cities growing rapidly and urban motor traffic also increasing dramatically in many cities, the situation is likely to get worse, not better in years to come.

More and more city authorities are realising that dangerous traffic conditions on their streets have a toll that goes beyond the human tragedy and economic loss caused by road deaths and crash injuries. Dangerous traffic makes people feel unsafe, and people who feel unsafe will refrain from doing normal things – letting their children walk to school or cycling to work, for instance.

Four pedestrians waiiting to cross traffic
Waiting to cross traffic (Flickr/Serakatie)

Thus,  a high level of urban road safety is more and more seen as a critical component of a liveable city.  It improves citizens’ quality of life, it increases choices, it opens up opportunities. Ultimately, safer city streets are about enhanced personal freedom.

Safer streets equal more liveable cities

This was recognised in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2016. There, governments agreed (in goal number 11) to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and as part of that committed to “improving road safety,… with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations”.

The link between the different objectives is easy to spot: improving road safety makes cities not only safer, but also more sustainable because it enables people to walk or cycle without having to fear for their lives. It also makes them more inclusive because those who cannot afford cars can be mobile without running lethal risks.

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But in practical terms, what can mayors and city authorities do to enhance traffic safety in their city? One obvious answer is: Do not reinvent the wheel – learn from what others are already doing. Many good practices for urban road safety exist around the world and only wait to be copied. A second, maybe less obvious answer is: Get your data in shape. Measure what is happening on your streets and how it changes, so you can base policy decisions on evidence, not assumptions.

When cities learn from each other

These two thoughts are the driving ideas behind Safer City Streets, the global traffic safety network for liveable cities. Little more than six months after its launch in October 2016, a total of 38 cities are working together in the Safer City Streets network, ranging  from Astana in Kazhakstan to Zürich in Switzerland and including global metropolises such as New York City, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, London,  Berlin, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Montreal and many others.

Safer City Streets brochure cover page w framThe Safer City Streets network, which holds its first meeting in Paris on 20 and 21 April (with more than 50 participants expected to attend),  provides the first global platform for cities and their road safety experts to exchange experiences and discuss ideas. At the heart of Safer City Streets activity will be efforts to improve the collection of data about urban road crashes to enable cities to compare themselves with others and base policy decisions on reliable evidence. A methodology for the database has already been developed and many of the cities have started feed it in their numbers.

The flying start has been helped by the fact that Safer City Streets itself is building on previous experience: It is modeled on the highly successful International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD), the International Transport Forum’s permanent working group on road safety, which brings together countries and national road safety stakeholders. Fittingly, the annual IRTAD meeting is held back-to-back with the inaugural meeting of Safer City Streets – which will also include a joint workshop with POLIS,  a network of European cities and regions, on how to bring cities from both networks together in order to find the best solutions for data collection.

Cities who are interested in finding out more about Safer City Streets are invited to contact the author. They should also know that membership of  Safer City Streets is currently free, thanks to a very generous grant from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

Alexandre Santacreu is a policy analyst for road safety at the International Transport Forum and the project manager of the Safer City Streets network. More information at http://itf-oecd.org/safer-city-streets. This post also appears on OECD Insights.

Are Zero Road Deaths Possible?

safe-system-report-coverBy Hans Michael Kloth, International Transport Forum. This post is jointly published with the OECD Insights blog.

Every year around the globe, 1.25 million people are killed in traffic – about the population of a city like Munich, Stockholm or Dallas. Up to 50 million are seriously injured. Road crashes kill more people than malaria or tuberculosis and are steadily working their way up the top ten causes of death worldwide, forecast to rise from currently ninth place to fifth by 2030. Among the 15 to 29-year olds, they are already the most common cause of death. The human tragedies behind these stark figures are as dramatic as the economic impacts: Road fatalities and serious injuries cost many countries an estimated 2 to 5% of their GDP.

Clearly, this situation is unsustainable. The United Nations’ “Decade of Action for Road Safety”, launched in 2011 with the aim of stabilising the number of road fatalities and then beginning to bring them down by 2020, was an important step to acknowledge that action is required at a global level to stop the daily carnage on the world’s roads. Then, last year, the UN upped the ante by including an even more ambitious road safety target in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Goal 3.6 calls on the international community to halve the number of road deaths and injuries by 2020.

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But in order to meet this target, more than 400 road deaths would have to be prevented every single day for the next four years; not to even speak of injuries. Yet with the number of cars growing rapidly in many emerging economies, so is the death toll there: Powerful, vehicles on inadequate roads, drivers with little training, inadequate rules and weak enforcement form a deadly mix that is not going to disappear easily.

A reboot for road safety policies

In developed economies, meanwhile, the downward trend that marked the past three decades (and saw the death toll in the UK, for instance, fall in 2015 to almost 20% of the 1966 peak) seems to be coming to an end: Fatality rates in many of the best-performing countries are levelling out and in some cases rising again, notably among vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists or seniors. A reboot for road safety policy is thus urgently needed, as the approaches that brought success in the past do no longer deliver the returns they once did, or are overwhelmed by an avalanche of cars.

Inspiration comes from a group of countries that have broken with the traditional paradigm in road safety, which is to fix crash hotspots and try to make road users behave more responsibly with a lot of stick and a few carrots. Nations like Sweden or the Netherlands, but also metropolises like New York City, have made it their official policy to try to eradicate road deaths. This approach, known as “Vision Zero”, starts from the premise that the loss of human life as the price for mobility is unacceptable – and that the mobility system should function in a way that poses as little deadly risk as possible.

This approach has been followed for decades in areas like occupational safety, where machinery has long been designed in a “forgiving” way, so that if the operator makes a mistake it will not kill or maim him – think of a circular saw that stops automatically if a limb gets too close for comfort. This “Safe System” approach is not new to transport either – aviation and rail operations would be unthinkable without it, as we would not want a single person’s mistake make a plane crash or trains collide.

Where humans err

Road traffic has yet to embrace the Safe System. Media stories regularly remind us that “human error” was the involved in this or that horror crash. Subtext: While all systems functioned, unfortunately the human didn’t, so there was nothing that could be done. Based on this view, governments spend billions on enforcement and the education of road users. But what is the price tag to get every single citizen to behave correctly all the time? Achieving 100% compliance is of course impossible. Humans make mistakes even if they are well-trained, willing to follow rules and capable of doing so. All of us who have turned our head while at the wheel to see what the kids are doing on the back seats know this to be true.

The Safe System approach that underpins “Vision Zero” accepts that humans will fail. From that principle, the challenge becomes to organise the traffic ecosystem in such a way that human mistakes do not cause serious harm. Here a second principle of the Safe System comes into play: The human body can only absorb a certain amount of kinetic energy before serious injuries occur. Again, a simple truth, too often disregarded. Taken seriously, it has wide implications for speed management, mixing traffic or designing infrastructure.

fig-2-4_conceptualisation-of-the-safe-system

The third principle of the Safe System is shared responsibility. If the aim is to avoid serious harm, it’s just not good enough to blame the driver who hit a tree, or the elderly lady who stepped on the pedestrian crossing without looking. In a Safe System, the agency managing afforestation understands that its actions can have an impact on road safety, as does the urban planner who will foresee speed bumps that force cars to slow down at crosswalks.

Will self-driving cars solve the road safety problem?

The fourth and final guiding principles for traffic as a Safe System is as straightforward: You cannot address road safety piecemeal. All parts of the system need to interlock to reinforce each other, so that when one part fails in the chain of events leading to a serious incident, the others will still protect humans from injury or worse.

Technology will go a long way to make road traffic safer. Alco locks, automatic braking, intelligent speed assistance, electronic stability control and the like will make lethal errors less likely, no doubt. Self-driving cars, many hope, will solve the road safety problem by making error-prone human drivers superfluous. But autonomous driving is not a silver bullet. Forecasts put sales of self-driving vehicles at 11.8 million or about 2.7% of the global car fleet in 2035. And the vast majority will be sold in developed world, while fully 90% of road fatalities occur in low- and middle-income countries. The impact of self-driving cars on road safety will hardly be noticeable for another generation or more

There are other misconceptions about how Vision Zero works. It does not mean, for instance, that there will be no more crashes. There might even be more, because the Safe System is focused on avoiding serious injuries, not necessarily accidents. Take roundabouts: It is not rare that there are more collisions at roundabouts than at standard intersections. But because they rarely involve impacts at a 90-degree angle and occur at lower speeds, far fewer severe injuries result.

Ultimately, can there really ever be zero road deaths? On a global level, probably not. But looking at individual segments it is already happening: There are at least three European cities with more than 250 000 inhabitants that have not had a single road fatality in over a year, according to German safety specialist Dekra. In Sweden, not a single child was killed in a bicycle accident in 2008. On this level, zero road deaths as a target is not utopian – and then: if it can be done for one group or region or car make, it can probably also be done for others as well. If governments take the political lead and bring all those together who can and should make it happen, it can work.

Let’s give the Safe System a chance to save lives.

pm logo and strap_newThe International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD recently published “Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System” (2016), which reviews the experiences of countries that have adopted Vision Zero and the Safe System and provides guidance for leaders who seek to drastically reduce road deaths in their communities. For this report and its global road safety work the ITF is today being awarded a Prince Michael of Kent International Road Safety Award.

 

Driving from a distance

How remote-controlled trucks could pave the way towards fully automated driving

José Viegas, Secretary-General, International Transport Forum

driving-distance-remote-controlled-trucksAre we going to be comfortable letting go of the steering wheel? Many car makers and technology companies are betting on it. A flurry of recent announcements is predicting that driverless cars and taxis will be on our cities streets within five years. Uber just began a pilot of self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla’s latest business plan clearly targets “fully self-driving” vehicles, and Ford is gearing up for mass market driverless car production by 2021.

Much less media attention has been devoted to a related issue: the possibility that driverless trucks will soon be roaming our roads. For this scenario the key question is a slightly different one: Are we ready to share the roads with dozens of tonnes of steel when there is no human in charge?

Once it becomes available, the operating flexibility and cost reductions from driverless operations offer trucking companies and their customers a strong carrot for its adoption. The International Transport Forum estimates that on long-distance routes driverless trucks could be operated with a cost advantage of 30% or more compared to conventional manned trucks. The advantages for hauliers are obvious: Drivers represent the biggest chunk of operational costs and at the same time a constraint on using trucks at full capacity – they do need breaks to rest, after all. Taking humans from the cabin means trucks could operate all day and night without having to stop, except for refuelling.

When machines take over

There are many issues that need to be solved before driverless technology can be cleared for use on public roads. Some are technical and need to be resolved by engineers and computer scientists. Others are public policy issues: Governments need to make the call as to when the machines can take over. This involves deciding how and when driverless truck systems demonstrate lower (real and perceived) risks of crashes than the current situation with humans doing the driving – and especially that they do not fail in situations that humans would normally handle well.

No driving system can ever be 100 per cent safe, whether humans or computerised systems are in charge. But in well-defined situations – for instance on motorways, where there is no crossing traffic and speeds are similar – automation technology may soon safely handle driving tasks for 99.9% or even 99.99% of driving time. But can there be a clear-cut percentage or success rate for allowing operation without a driver in the cabin that would satisfy the safety concerns of regulators (or of road users, for that matter)?

In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently published guidelines on automated vehicles. These provide an early indication about how it will judge when the machines are ready to take over. The US approach appears to be that driverless vehicle developers will be required to set out clearly how their vehicles respond to given situations (such as a loss of communications) and how they comply with each road rule.

A matter of feelings

Yet accepting robot trucks is not solely about rule compliance and crash probabilities. It also has a highly subjective dimension. That humans systematically overestimate their own driving skills is a well-documented fact. The result of this, among other factors, is 1.25 million road deaths every year on the world’s roads. Objectively, machines will probably be able to do better soon. Yet public acceptance may well depend more on how people would feel if they heard on the news that a 32-tonne semi-trailer with no human driver in the cabin had been involved in a fatal crash. Regardless of the actual crash performance of driverless trucks, the idea might well be scuttled if the public’s perception is dominated by unease, fed by rare but highly publicised crashes.

It is thus worth thinking about ways to move towards driverless trucks and the benefits they provide while reassuring the community that machines haven’t taken over. Three options warrant consideration.

The first is so-called platooning. In a truck platoon, several vehicles form a closely-spaced convoy in which only the lead truck has a human driver who navigates traffic. The following trucks are linked to the lead truck by wireless data links and automatically maintain a safe distance with the vehicle in front. If the trailing vehicles were allowed to operate without driver, quite significant cost savings would be possible. Although platooning has received a great deal of attention, e.g. from the European Union, the need to co-ordinate drivers and vehicles may make it less attractive than fully automated driving. Controlling “centipede” configurations of vehicles will also introduce new challenges for truck drivers as well as the other drivers on the same road.

Handing over control

A second transition option is that of part-time human control: Drivers remain obligatory on all trucks, but their role is reduced to taking over from computerised systems when unexpectedly difficult driving situations arise. Such passive driving technology is well-advanced: Truck manufacturer Daimler is testing driver-assisted automated trucks on the highways of Nevada in the US.

This will help build experience with autonomous driving, yet the approach also has its limitations. Most importantly, the hand-over between machine and human is particularly risky. The driver still needs to pay full attention and be ready to act at all times – so while his task may be less strenuous, he will still need rest. With machines in charge most of the time, there is of course the risk the driver will not always be ready to take over quickly enough. Not least, the need to have drivers on board means there is no significant reduction of operating costs, making this option less attractive to hauliers.

A third option is remote driving. Imagine control rooms where professional drivers are set up in a cabin-like environment that closely mimics the information and tools available in a real truck. These drivers would remotely monitor and control a number of otherwise self-driving trucks and intervene, taking manual control of steering, indicating, accelerating and braking, when and where needed. The relatively low complexity of driving on a motorway would make it possible to operate a fleet of trucks with a much lower number of drivers than that of the trucks under their control.

Truck driving as an office job

What sounds like science-fiction is already being tested in the real world, albeit in different contexts. Drones are just the most obvious example: the US Navy is currently in advanced tests of a remotely controlled fighter jet. In maritime shipping, Rolls Royce is working on freight ships controlled from land. In Australia, enormous trucks operating in the iron ore mines of Western Australia are being controlled by drivers in a centre 1 200 kilometres away. In the Netherlands, the remote control room approach is being used for the operation of low-speed driverless WEpod minibuses that operate on the five-kilometre route between the University of Wageningen and the city of Ede. And an Estonian firm is testing small robot vehicles for urban delivery in Washington, London and Hamburg that will be overseen from a control room in Tallinn, thousands of kilometres away.

Driving from a control room has obvious advantages. For the driver, trucking becomes a regular office job similar to that of an air traffic controller. Rather than having to sleep in the truck cabin somewhere in a parking area with no facilities, he can go home to the family at the end of the day. Compared to full automation, the remote driving approach also ensures some continuity of skills, as the best truck drivers redeploy to control centres that offer more stable and comfortable job conditions.

Herding trucks like sheep

In the control room, remote drivers would be alerted by the on-board systems when difficult situations arise on road in which computers perform less well than humans – such as bad weather that hampers sensors, or ambiguous situations a computer cannot easily adjudicate. Initially, the threshold for human intervention would be set low, but with growing experience and self-learning systems it could be raised to a level where the control centre steps in less and less.

A control room (perhaps owned by a truck manufacturer) could begin trials with a high ratio of drivers to trucks, even one-to-one. It would collect data (and share it with the regulator) on how often and under what circumstances drivers have to take over (and how often this occurs simultaneously). If the data shows that interventions from the control centre are sufficiently rare, its operator could gain regulatory approval to gradually bring more trucks under the control of each remote fall-back driver, depending on the risk aversion of the regulator.

Finally, remote controlling does not require the co-ordination of trucks as in the platooning approach; it could be operated anywhere with suitable communications coverage. This raises the challenge for control room operators: They will need to invest in the facilities, on-board systems and communication technology necessary to support remote interventions in a given area. As one-to-one remote operation would not be profitable (but a likely first step), investors would need to be confident that regulators will allow higher truck/driver ratios once safe performance has been demonstrated. But for vehicle manufacturers, the investment as such is easily within their means. And given the cost reduction and performance increase they would offer, the potential demand for remote-controlled trucks is evident.

A feasible path

The control centre model for driverless trucking on motorways seems to be a feasible path towards fully-automated trucks. It would also be directly applicable to other areas currently relying on professional drivers, such as taxis and buses. The significant cost savings would be attractive to operators, while the availability of drivers as a fall back in case of system failures could allay concerns about giving full responsibility to a robot.

If we knew that a highly skilled human driver was always ready at a moment’s notice to take control of the vehicle, wouldn’t we be more willing to share the road with it?