This month’s CAVScotland heard about trials of automated transport by Stagecoach and Addison Lee who both agree that they still need people

 
Scotland’s transport secretary, Michael Matheson, viewed the full size autonomous Enviro200 bus at CAVScotland

 

The hype surrounding automated vehicles peaked in 2017. We’re now in the “trough of disillusionment” but the next stop is the “slope of enlightenment”. This was the argument put forward at this month’s CAVScotland conference in Glasgow. The bold claims of a couple of years ago have been replaced by more modest, realistic aspirations – and a recognition that humans will still play a role in our computer-driven future.

The next stop for autonomous buses will be Ferrytoll Park and Ride in Fife. By the end of next year a new autonomous bus service will be ferrying passengers from this 1,000-space facility across the Forth Road Bridge, which is now dedicated to public transport and active travel, on a “challenging” 14-mile journey via motorways and other public roads to the Edinburgh Park train and tram interchange on the western fringe of the Scottish capital.

Part-funded by the UK Government’s Centre for the Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), Project CAVForth brings together bus operator Stagecoach, bus builder Alexander Dennis and technology company Fusion Processing, along with Transport Scotland, Bristol Robotics Laboratory and Napier University, to deliver a “globally significant” demonstration of autonomous technology.

Stagecoach East Scotland will operate a fleet of five Enviro200 buses on this service, each capable of carrying up to 42 passengers, for a trial period of 12 months. The buses will operate to Level 4 autonomous standard, which means that a driver will remain in the cab during any journey, at speeds of up to 50mph. A new hard shoulder bus lane on the M8 will meanwhile reduce peak time journeys by up to 20 minutes.

The project builds on a trial by Stagecoach, Alexander Dennis and Fusion of an autonomous Enviro200 bus at Stagecoach’s Sharston depot in Greater Manchester. This vehicle moves around the depot autonomously, taking itself to the fuelling station and bus wash before parking itself. This vehicle was among a range of autonomous vehicles that were demonstrated at CAVScotland.

Addressing the conference, Stagecoach project manager Louise Simpson spoke about an issue that is often overlooked in technology-focused discussions about autonomous vehicles – people. She conceded that the response from Stagecoach staff towards the driverless bus trial at Sharston depot had been mixed.

“There are many drivers who feel very excited to be part of the advancement in technology and are very keen to go on this journey with us,” she said. “But some have questioned what it means for them and what impact it will have on their role in the future.”

Simpson said Stagecoach was working hard to allay their concerns and she pointed out that bus users value the face to face interaction with drivers.

“We feel very strongly that people will continue to be at the heart of our business – now and in the future,” she said.

Simpson pointed out that there are many facets in the role of the driver that a computer cannot replicate, such as offering advice and assistance to passengers, particularly those who are vulnerable, and helping them with their ticket sales and enquiries.

We want to take our staff with us on this journey and this route to the future. We want to make sure that we continue to provide the best service for our customers

“So we want to take our staff with us on this journey and this route to the future,” she said. “We want to make sure that we continue to provide the best service for our customers.”

Stagecoach sees the CAVForth project as an opportunity to not only understand the tech, but also sees an opportunity to understand the human aspects of autonomous bus services as well, and what it will it mean for its passengers, its staff and the wider public.

Simpson was asked how Stagecoach is considering the impact on bus drivers who aren’t actually driving, and how they will stay engaged in the journeys when they are not actively driving. She said that sensors would detect if a driver is distracted and would deliver an alert – but experience so far has suggested that drivers will be so focussed that they may even need additional breaks.

“The drivers that have been operating the vehicle in the depot [at Sharston] have actually said that they find almost the opposite,” she said. “It’s so intensive because they’re watching the vehicle so closely … their brains are doing 100 miles an hour more.”

In Phoenix, Arizona, Google’s Waymo is now operating a fleet of self-driving cars without safety drivers in the vehicle – they are instead located in an operational facility 10-20 miles away. Simpson was asked whether she envisaged this as a future model for buses.

“No,” she responded. “If we reach a stage in the UK where Level 5 autonomy is permitted and we can operate buses without a safety driver in the cab, we would like to have them on board in some capacity. So they would still be there in the case of a massive road closure and then they would take over of the bus, but also to act as a sort of guide for people on board.”

Simpson’s people-focused presentation chimed with the next speaker, Paul McCabe, director of corporate development and mobility innovation at taxi operator Addison Lee.

Although Addison Lee is best known for its fleet in London, the company now generates annual revenues of £400m from its operations in 600 locations worldwide. McCabe said that, like Stagecoach, the company has the scale to exploit this technology and accelerate its path to market.

It was McCabe who suggested that autonomous vehicles had hit the “peak of inflated expectations” on Gartner’s Hype Cycle in 2017. The visibility of this product since has tailed off but he believes that we will soon start to see a steady and sustained route towards mass market adoption.

Addison Lee is also launching a Level 4 autonomous service next year. From next summer it will operate five autonomous Ford Mondeos in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in a 12-month trial.

These vehicles have already been operating in London, but not for fare paying customers. They have been demonstrated to 300 people in east London’s Olympic Park. “As one of those passengers, I can tell you it was reassuringly boring,” McCabe revealed.

The intention is for this pilot service to complement public transport by feeding into transport hubs, focussing on areas with poor connectivity and competing with the private car.

Autonomy has an awful lot of constraints at the moment and it is best complemented with humans now, but actually even in 10 years

“Autonomy has an awful lot of constraints at the moment and it is best complemented with humans now, but actually even in 10 years.” said McCabe.

“So, for all the reasons you heard from Stagecoach, people will still need to be involved in the future, whether it’s helping people that need assistance, carrying bags, meeting and greeting at the airport or chaperoning, for example. All those roles still need to be carried out and AI is incredibly powerful, incredibly intelligent, but perhaps it’s best complementing the human at this stage.”

Concluding his remarks and maintaining the focus on people, McCabe said: “You’ve got to put the customer first. Anything else is a tech demonstration.”

 
Further coverage appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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