‘Safety & Security’ was the theme of last month’s International Transport Forum Summit in Leipzig. I was one of 1,200 visitors

 

A panel session during the International Transport Forum’s 2018 Summit
 

The Paris-based International Transport Forum, which is an associated agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and based in Paris, France, held its annual summit in Leipzig, Germany at the end of May. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Safety & Security’. The conference attracts transport ministers from many of the participating OECD countries, as well as industry partners, consultants and media. As well as open plenary and specialist sessions, the ministerial participants have sessions to develop and agree global policy aims in transport. Over 1,200 attendees from around the world were at this year’s event which was led by the Latvian Presidency of the group which will now pass to South Korea for 2019.

The conversations and debates during the event generate reflections on the state of the overall transport network and the vast improvements in safety for travellers over the last few decades. However, these trends are not perpetual or universal and some countries, particularly the United States, are seeing increases in the rates of road accidents and fatalities. Also, on a global scale an urbanising world is bringing many more people into cities where the potential for road accidents can be increased due to the density of traffic and pedestrians. The statistics indicate that a comprehensive focus on road safety can bring significant benefits. In fact, the UK has some of the most impressive road safety statistics in the world. UK road fatalities have steadily declined from an already low rate through the last decade and this country has some of the lowest road fatalities in the world per 100,000 population, per distance travelled and per 10,000 vehicles. Our rate of decline in fatalities for cyclists and pedestrians has not been as significant over the last few years and in some cases has increased.

It should be noted in the world of transport the significant and spectacular progress that the aviation sector has made in bringing safety to the operation of its mode. While many may criticise aspects of the air travel experience over the last few years, the statistics in air travel safety are remarkable. Some of the statistics are becoming so low as to be hard to statistically measure on an annual basis. For example, not a single jet airliner passenger was killed in a hull loss incident in 2017, making it the safest year ever for commercial air passenger travel. In many countries and for many airlines years have passed since the last passenger fatality. Yet, air travel demand is rapidly increasing and is predicted to nearly double again by 2036.

The air transport industry adopts a total systems approach to safety and critically looks at all aspects of the industry and its processes and attempts to design out potential injurious or fatal risk. This has been progressing for many years and the impacts are clear.

Comparable programmes can be seen in “vision zero” type approaches now being developed and implemented for the design of streets in some countries and originating in Sweden. Can a comprehensive overview of safety be developed that attempts to design out entirely fatalities from the transport or public transport system?

But, what does this mean for personal transport and the public transport industry? In particular, is the pending autonomous revolution likely to create an even safer world for personal transport?

It would be a step backward in the design of our cities if we enable widespread autonomous vehicle use to return us to the segregation of modes we promoted 20 years ago

The debate is still pending on this point and in particular, on how autonomous vehicles will deal with the seemingly unpredictable pedestrian and cyclist behaviour in mixed traffic environments. It would be a step backward in the design of our cities if we enable widespread autonomous vehicle use to return us to the segregation of modes we promoted 20 years ago of pedestrian barriers, over and under passes, fully segregated pedestrian precincts and active discouragement of cycling on many roads.

Autonomous vehicles are very near or maybe very far away depending on whom you ask. In any case, it will take some time for them to move from an exciting and idiosyncratic exception to the regular norm across the very large global vehicle fleet. Inevitably, some cities, regions or countries may move much faster in their implementation due to political or technical will, or as a result of an advantageous geographic or structural context such as a small self-contained island or wealthy user base.

The progress that has already been made in many economies in reducing road fatalities, the progress that we have seen in sectors such as aviation, as well as the views that every life lost matters in many countries should make us as transport professionals reconsider the objectives of autonomy in transport as well as how it is being delivered. Vast amounts of, largely private funds along with enabling funds from many public sources, are going into the development of autonomous vehicles. The fully self-driving vehicle will no doubt be an intellectual wonder. It may or may not be a commercial success as a transport means however, due to cost and availability – and could easily end up as the preserve of the select few in certain socio-economic groups and tech-led cities in the world.

Road vehicle sales, clearly mostly not autonomous, will have doubled between 2010 and 2020 to approximately two billion vehicles. One hundred million new road vehicles are sold every year. And sadly, over 1.3 million people each year die on the world’s roads in accidents.

However, should we not be focussing on the abilities of progressive autonomy to create a safer transport system for all? It may not immediately present the wonder of the vehicle without a driver and for many it wouldn’t fulfil this grand intellectual challenge. It may also not deliver some of the larger benefits of a readily available means of transport for those who are unable or unwilling to drive themselves. However, many of the technologies already progressed and delivered by the car industry such as lane guidance, advanced emergency braking systems, electronic stability control, rear view cameras and pivoting headlamps are incremental steps in the move to autonomy but have brought substantial road safety benefits to the world today. Rather than focussing so heavily on full autonomy should we as an industry and as policy-makers return to focusing on making road transport safer for car users as well as non-car travellers by more aggressively rolling out these incremental technologies – and many emerging new ones that can make the systems we see around us today so much safer. This could include the use of partial autonomy for certain types of driving or in certain situations where driver behaviour was of relevance in avoiding an accident.

A further benefit of this approach would be to offer an ageing society, which was discussed in my previous article (PT185), more abilities to continue to safely drive themselves in the short term due to the expansion of these assistive vehicle technologies.

This approach also has many benefits for the public transport industry. Selective autonomy could assist bus drivers in dealing with the multitude of tasks they face in managing a large vehicle in urban traffic, managing passengers on the vehicle, often collecting fares as well as looking out for waiting passengers and giving information. There are several of these tasks that could be automated to improve service levels as well as the safety of the overall system. For example, systems could identify waiting passengers at bus stops well in advance of the typical visual range of the driver and alert the driver to the pending need to stop. Again, not the panacea of full autonomy, but progressive steps to improve the levels of the service offered to customers in the near term.

Vehicle autonomy is, in my view, an inevitable evolution of many of our transport systems, and will be, again in my view, being operated in selected locations around the world in a few years

Vehicle autonomy is, in my view, an inevitable evolution of many of our transport systems, and will be, again in my view, being operated in selected locations around the world in a few years. It will take many years, however, before it becomes widespread. This perhaps should not be the pressing focus for the transport industry. The opportunity to harness much of this thinking and technological development in order to deliver significant benefits to the travelling public today is substantial. The debate should thus, perhaps be refocussed on using autonomy to improve the safety of the transport system for all through rapid and progressive technological improvements in both cars, public transport buses, as well as goods movement.

 

About the author:

Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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