How robots are changing transport

Robots are taking over every kind of transport. But what do these new modes of automated travel look like? And what will their impact be?

No, we’re not about to see humanoids in our drivers’ seats and cockpits – though they have been spotted riding motorbikes.

Today’s and tomorrow’s modes of transport are the robots – smart automated vehicles equipped with lasers, GPS and other tech, capable of driving and flying themselves.

We’ve all heard of self-driving cars, but this is just the start. From robot buses already being trialled on European streets to Jetson-style drones set to create a whole new transport network in city skies, companies are investing big to change the face of private and commercial travel.

Here’s what getting from A to B might look like in the not-too-distant future.

Robot buses

On 25 October 2017, in Germany’s Bavaria region, a 15-seater electric driverless vehicle, made by French startup EasyMile and Deutsche Bahn (DB), successfully hit the road for the first time – and it’s not the only robot bus undergoing trials.

In cities such as Paris, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Dubai similar multi-person vehicles have and are being tested. Meanwhile in Singapore they’ve gone one step further, building a whole town to help test and advance robot bus tech.

Speaking about the German Bad Birnbach trial, DB boss Richard Lutz announced: “We’ve just driven autonomously into a new era of transport” – and he wasn’t wrong.

After only one year of service in Bad Birnbach, EasyMile’s EZ10 shared autonomous shuttle has travelled more than 10,000 kilometres autonomously and carried around 20,000 passengers. In August 2018 the route was doubled from 700 metres to 1,400 metres, to link the railway station to the town centre.

Getting autonomous buses on the road is a significant step forward for the future of public transport. Thanks to their green design and potential ability to run 24/7, these automated vehicles could boost efficiencies, help save the environment – by reducing congestion, emissions and noise pollution – and drive cost savings.

However, DB, along with tech influencers including Elon Musk, see these vehicles making an even bigger impact and completely reimagining bus travel.

Fixed stops could be a thing of the past, with robot buses instead making door-to-door pickups. This could, in turn, lead to down-sizing, and the introduction of smaller, more efficient vehicles that could be deployed according to demand.

Self-driving cars

Of all the modes of transport robots are impacting, self-driving cars are the ones we see on the news and popping up on our social media feeds most often.

What’s the latest? Top automotive tech companies – including Daimler, General Motors (GM), Telsa and Ford – are still racing to get the first level 5 fully automated car out on the open roads, with Google spin-off Waymo currently in the number one spot.

According to Bloomberg, Waymo has already tested self-driving cars across “5 million road miles in 25 cities and done billions of miles in computer simulation”. However, alongside successes, there have been failures and even fatalities, meaning they’re not there yet.

When they do finally develop solutions that are reliable and safe, self-driving cars will undoubtedly make a significant impact on the reality of everyday transport. Road safety will be improved – although the public is yet to be convinced that machines are better drivers – and journeys will be faster thanks to machine-enabled efficiencies.

New models of manufacturing will also be needed to build these new types of cars. In addition, with robots taking the wheel, humans will be able to sit back and relax or spend their commute productively, enjoying an experience more akin to traditional bus or train travel.

Unpiloted planes

While unmanned aircraft are already being used by the world’s militaries, getting a commercial passenger plane off the ground is a trickier proposition. But that’s not stopping companies investing billions to make it happen.

Why the investment? Because losing the pilot could save airlines massive amounts of cash each year – up to $60 billion in operational costs according to calculations by Forbes. These savings would come not only from taking pilots out of the equation, but also from lower build costs as cockpit size could be reduced.

While much of a pilot’s work is already automated, with manual input only needed for take-off and landing, companies such as Boeing and Airbus want to take the next step. However, for the time being the focus is on developing aircraft manned by a single pilot, rather than two.

Aside from the safety net aspect, a big reason for this is that public confidence for completely pilot-free planes is not there yet. To use the words of one expert:

The issue has never been ‘Could you automate an airplane and fly it autonomously?’ The issue is ‘Could you put paying customers in the back of that airplane?

John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (via Air & Space)

Automated trains

Driverless trains transport billions of commuters every year. In Europe alone, cities including London, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Paris have fully functioning automated metro lines, while over the other side of the world Sydney has plans to start trialling one next year.

Unmanned metros are already boosting safety and enabling significant cost savings, thanks to increases in efficiency and reduced labour costs. They can schedule smoothly for a more reliable service, break automatically for obstacles, and run 24/7 without the need to stop for driver shift changes.

However, while autonomous metros are already up and running, high-speed cross-country trains are yet to set off driver free – although degrees of automation are being tested.

Switzerland national train operator Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) has successfully tested an automated locomotive that uses a driver-assistance system or digital train driver. Overseen by an on-board mechanic, it can hit the break and reach speeds of around 200kph (125mph).

Taxi drones

We’ve been dreaming of flying cars for years. Now German-based company Volocopter GmbH has created the world’s first autonomous air taxi – the Volocopter 2X.

Tested in Dubai in September last year, this two-seater, 18-rotor multicopter has proved it has what it takes to take city transport to the next level – literally.

Other companies working on passenger drones include Airbus, Boeing and Uber.

“Fleets of self-piloted craft could be hovering above city streets and dodging skyscrapers within a decade,” according to Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing.

While most other projects are still at the planning stage, Volocopter is the only aircraft that has been tested in cities and already received a form of certification.

The impact of these robot air taxis on transport would be significant. Sending our everyday commute skywards could solve traffic problems in major cities. As they’re noise and pollution free, the environment would also benefit.

For them to become a reality, however, a lot of groundwork will need to be done. New airspace regulations will need to be put in place, and infrastructure will need to change to allow roof space for docking hubs and control centres.

Automating transport aims to boost safety, reliability and efficiency. While demand will drop for drivers and pilots, new roles in control and management will open up. However, for the full impact to be felt, infrastructure, regulations and attitudes will need to shift.

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