Autonomous Vehicles, 5G, And Breakthroughs In High-Speed Transport Solutions Changed Conversation Surrounding Technology’s Role.

By Riaz Naqvi

Uber’s First Ignite Session Brought Together Regional Experts To Discuss The Importance Of Private And Public Sector Cooperation, and how technology can drive behavioural change. Autonomous vehicles, 5G, telematics and breakthroughs in high-speed transport solutions have all changed the conversation surrounding technology’s role in transportation safety.

To explore the subject, Uber has brought together thought leaders, regulators, corporates and innovators representing a diverse set of perspectives to discuss solutions for urban challenges faced by MENA residents, governments and companies in its new Ignite series of webinars. You can view the session in its entirety below:

“No matter which perspective you take, safety will always be a concern – be it during the early stages of autonomous driving, AI-managed mass transit of goods or the risks of coronavirus,” said Sherif Amer, Lead Anchor at MBC Masr and moderator of the first panel session, Tech for transport safety, which took place on January 26. ‘We call them collisions, not accidents’ Rebecca Payne, Senior Safety and Insurance Product Manager at Uber, said, “At the most basic level, we know that collisions are mostly preventable – and that’s why we take care at Uber not to call them accidents.”

Every injury or death that occurs as the result of a crash, she added, is entirely preventable. “We need to be working to reduce those statistics, but no one company or government will be able to solve this on their own.”

While Uber has had a team dedicated to building technology, enforcing policies and operationalising new safety protocols, Covid-19 has posed a different set of challenges. “Before the pandemic, that was trying to prevent dangerous driving and collisions while also preventing any conflicts that can happen inside the vehicle.” Last year, the company had to shift its resources, knowledge and technology towards addressing the pandemic. “How do we, for example, introduce features such as mask detection for drivers or riders before they’re requesting a ride or going online?

“We were able to transfer that during the pandemic into mask-wearing, cleaning your vehicle and things that pertain to health, safety and hygiene as well.” The size of Uber’s driver and rider network also poses a challenge. “They behave on their own accord, and we don’t have control over exactly what happens in the vehicle – we rely on our technology and our policies to enforce that,” explained Payne. Prior to the pandemic, the app’s feedback system handled this. “We could educate either driver or rider about behaving better in future, and have policies to enforce that over time.”

Through 2021, Uber will continue developing telematics-based solutions that can recognise ride anomalies – for example, if a ride has stopped for too long or a high-impact collision is detected – and reach out to the driver and rider proactively. She pointed to one surprising statistic: an increase in overall road traffic deaths, despite there being fewer cars on roads in 2020. “People are more likely to speed and less likely to obey the rules if there isn’t traffic stopping them.

“As we emerge from the pandemic and people start to return to normal, it will all be through a lens of health and safety. Everyone will have a different risk tolerance when it comes to leaving the house, knowing what the cleanliness policies or protocols are of the transportation they’re using, be it mass transit, ride sharing or their own vehicle.”

A lot of the new safety technologies discussed by the panel – connected cars, telematics, smart infrastructure – go beyond the remit of Uber as an app. “If we’re able to expand into these other technologies, that only improves our ability to act in real time – not just after the fact by showing a driver what their behaviour has been – by having advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) or forward collision warning systems.”

The role of infrastructure in road connectivity

One particularly promising technology aspect for transport safety comes from smart sensors on roads. “We’re developing AI models, 5G and IoT technologies to be able to extract as much intelligence from road sensors – in real time – and feed that information back into the ecosystem,” explained Karl Jeanbart, COO and co-founder of Derq.

In order to be safe, autonomous cars cannot simply function as standalone entities – they need to be communicating with their surroundings. Through its real-time collection of data, smart infrastructure can lend self-driving cars a degree of perception that enhances their safety. “This is key for enabling [vehicle] autonomy at level four and five stages.”

Ultimately, the question of trust – by the public in autonomous vehicles – can be answered by standards and how well a system is performing, explained Jeanbart. “We never deploy standalone systems – we’re always integrated with partners, infrastructure providers, agency, road owner, car manufacturer as well as the end user, that whole value chain.” The performance of a system is judged according to standards and ecosystems perspectives. “For example, when you’re considering AI, there’s a lot of prediction and inference involved – how accurate is it, especially compared to human judgement?”

Improvements in safety, mobility and user experience are at the heart of developing smart infrastructure. “Today, what’s happening a lot in the autonomous driving space, that whole industry is self-regulating. It’s developing standards, regulations and advising governments on what types of standards will make that whole ecosystem acceptable to the general public.” 

There are many layers of complexity to establishing connectivity between driver, car and road, standardisation is the first big step. “How do you achieve scale in vehicle fleets, which need to be connected, and how do you roll out connected infrastructure, which involves working with road owners and operators with different jurisdictions?” Jeanbart said automakers are a step ahead, with connected technologies already developed – though, crucially, this isn’t in point-to-point, vehicle-to-everything technology that enables cars to communicate with each other. “However, 5G offers a lot of promise in this area, and that’s where you’re seeing a lot of funds going towards developing connected cars.” He cited Ford, GM and Tesla as leaders in updates, mapping and pushing content to vehicles.

On the infrastructure front, the process is a lot slower due to the capital expenditure required from the government perspective. “However, the past few months have seen a big shift – regulators are moving away from legacy Wi-Fi tech to cellular technology, which will help the market explode, and close that loop, where you’ll see cellular-enabled vehicles with cellular-connected infrastructure.”

Truck safety and optimisation: Building the right incentives

In Egypt, large trucks used for transporting goods are referred to as trellas. For Ali El Atrash, Co-Founder and COO of Trella, it was a perfect name for his start-up, a trucking marketplace that connects carriers and shippers. El Atrash said it’s unfortunate that trellas have a bad reputation through their association with accidents. “Ten percent of road deaths are caused by trucks in Egypt, the GCC and Pakistan – and just 6 percent of accidents cause 10 percent of deaths.” He added that accidents and injuries cost the GCC more than $8 billion every year.

The biggest cause for accidents where truckers are at fault, according to El Atrash, is the long hours they drive. “Eight, 10, 12 and sometimes 16 hours straight – and some of them are unfortunately under the influence of drugs.” Another common factors include poor maintenance, overuse of vehicles (“if you look at odometers, some have done over a million kilometres”), a lack of advanced braking systems and overloading the trucks.

He said a long-term solution could come from legislation – already enforced in Europe – that limits the number of hours a trucker can drive in a day or week, as well as heavier fines for overloading the vehicles. With 20,000 drivers on the Trella network, incentives are key to ensuring safety, believes El Atrash. “These carriers struggle to make ends meet, despite the fact that they are the jugular vein of economies – these are the ones that need to drive for 12-16 hours, spending weeks away from their families, while transporting 95 percent of goods and merchandise in Egypt.”  With warnings for overspeeding in particular areas, vehicle inspection requirements, direct routes home, random drug testing and enforced hours limitation, El Atrash said the benefits will be seen in both driver benefit and safety alleviation.

Next-gen mass transit: From whitepaper to reality 

Harj Dhaliwal, Managing Director of Virgin Hyperloop, explained the convergence of technologies that took the Hyperloop from a whitepaper to near-reality. “It’s the integration of aerospace and high-speed rail.” After its founding in 2014, Virgin Hyperloop was able to conduct its first trials and full-scale tests at a facility outside Las Vegas, called DevLoop, in 2017. “It proved that magnetic levitation in a vacuum environment worked, and allowed us to introduce a full-scale test vehicle, XP1.” Since 2017, a year in which 400 tests were carried out at Devloop, the technology has been developed further – on November 8 2020, the first human passenger journeys were demonstrated.

He credited the progress to investor support, as well as the nearly $700 million of capital that was raised. “The technology has now started to actually gain traction, not only with investors but also around the world.” As Virgin Hyperloop looks towards commercialisation, Dhaliwal said that while the technology is being developed for the US, Middle East and India, the company is working hand in glove with regulators and safety authorities in these markets. “We’re working with the US Department of Transport, the Transport General Authority in Saudi Arabia, RTA in the UAE and the Indian government’s technology think-tank.”

There’s always a cost to safety, whether it’s individual vehicles or mass transit systems, he added. “To put it into context, if it’s a motor vehicle, it’s still on public infrastructure in the public domain, so safety carries the same weight for all forms of transportation.

However, he said that complexities of safety differ between various means of transport. Taking an analogous example of autonomous cars, he said, “These are very smart, connected vehicles on very dumb infrastructure – highways – whereas with something like the Hyperloop, we are in a very closed environment. From a safety perspective, a lot of variables are removed. When we are travelling at high speeds using autonomous technology between vehicles and pods, we don’t need to consider variables such as the weather, people, other vehicles… they are very different scenarios, though everybody should consider safety on the same platform – it is in the public interest.”

The public sector perspective: How can we change behaviour?

Naif T. Bin Hwail, General Manager for Safety and Service Monitoring at the Transport General Authority in Saudi Arabia, said technology for transport safety requires a collaborative effort between governments and the private sector. “Before, the government used to apply rules without sitting with the private sector. Now, this behaviour has changed. We’re open-minded about technology that can amend or make laws for transportation.”

He added that technology, especially smart mobility, is a main driver behind transport safety regulation. “It’s not enough to pass laws and expect people to magically abide by these – we sit with our private sector partners, study the law, float it and take on comments before making awareness campaigns directed towards all stakeholders – beneficiaries and service providers – before we enforce.” He said this change in behaviours drastically reduced road deaths last year.

Are citizens prepared to pay more for safety? Hwail was keen to reframe the question: “Would they co-operate for safety? I would say yes, with a lot of resources from their side.” In the discussion about technology and safety, he too felt that behaviour was a key component. “From our field surveys, we’ve found that 85-90 percent of road incidents come from a lack of knowledge or lack of safety from the driver, so whatever we may do with our technology, without education, we’ll never see good results.” For him, technology and monitoring driver behaviour are very important – “the low-hanging fruit of safety effort”.

Automakers: ‘We’ll be able to profile a driver’s behavioural style’

Gary D. West, MD; OnStar Middle East Operations & Future Mobility at General Motors AMEA, believes we’ll see more tech-driven safety innovations in the automotive industry over the next decade than the coming 50 years. “This is because of a convergence of technology.”

When asked how OnStar – a subscription service that connects drivers to emergency authorities in case of an accident through in-car technology – might differ between the US and markets such as the UAE, where it’s about to launch, West said, “With a core focus on safety and peace of mind, OnStar consults emergency services and regulators prior to launch in any market.” With 1.3 million road fatalities worldwide – 13,000 of which occur in the GCC – he believes OnStar, which first launched in the US in 1996, could play a huge part in reduction of deaths.

Like the other panellists, West said safety technology is only useful if it can drive behavioural change. “This can be done through gamification, awareness and knowledge.” He agreed with El Atrash’s points about incentivising safe practices. “With OnStar, we’ll be able to identify heavy braking, hard acceleration, driving at night… all things through data points that can profile a driver’s behavioural style, which could lead to a potential collision.”

With the subscribers’ consent, these data points could also deliver added value. “For example, we’re looking to offer insurance products – if a subscriber agrees to letting us share their data, it could be used to drive down their insurance premiums.” With better driving offering a monetary incentive, this could also reduce the risk of collisions on the road.

This news was originally published at Arabian Business.