Techno meltdown for robotaxis, but the road ahead is automated

Techno meltdown for robotaxis, but the road ahead is automated

Posted by

Andy Bruce

July 2022

Oh dear. Technology doesn’t always quite deliver what’s intended.

Malfunctions are never what you want, from the blank screen on your laptop to the traffic lights all stuck on red. Worse, on green.

So when the fleet of robotaxis from Cruise – world leaders in driverless cars – came to a halt (all of them) at an intersection in San Francisco in the States, you’d be forgiven for a touch of road rage if you were caught up in the techno meltdown.

They just stopped, parked up, blocked all passage. It’s not as if you could remonstrate with anyone. With no drivers, there was only the hapless passenger in the back seat to face the flak.

The unfortunate mishap came less than a week after the driverless taxi service was launched around the streets of San Francisco.

It’s easy to guffaw at such an embarrassing and public techno meltdown, but driverless cars will play a vital role in public transportation in the future. And, of course, the here and now, as San Franciscans are finding out.

Perhaps the advantages of driverless cars aren’t immediately obvious to us because the benefits aren’t clear yet, or fully demonstrated. But Voyage – a technology company that was since bought up by Cruise – ran robotaxis for the residents of the largest retirement community in the world, ‘The Villages’, based in Florida on America’s east coast.

These robotaxis allowed the 125,000 residents to move around the 750 miles of road and three distinct neighbourhoods providing transport at the touch of an app. For those with any sort of disability, the fleet of Voyage taxis offered welcome mobility.

While the US may lead the way, in the UK we’re not so far behind with autonomous cars. In April this year, the government paved the way for a self-driving future with changes to the Highway Code. These changes allowed for self-driving cars to become a reality on UK roads, even if not quite the robotaxis of San Francisco. Changes are also being developed in the legal framework, alongside safety organisation consultation, to ensure the technology can be deployed safely.

Imagine, though, for a moment what the potential benefits could be for fleet drivers: no more motorway tedium – instead switch into self-drive mode and let the sensors and computers do the grunt work.

The upsides are many: it will help keep fleet drivers safer, fresher, and the cars greener (regulated constant speed driving is more environmentally friendly – however good a driver you think you may be – whether that’s diesel, hybrid or full electric).

And there’s more to come.

The government has put forward £40 million in a competition to fund projects that will accelerate developments in autonomous commercial vehicles, saying that such vehicles have the potential to revolutionise people’s lives, whether through better public transport or by making it easier for those who have mobility issues to order and access services.

In the meantime look out for the first vehicles approved under the Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) Regulation (different from the current lane-keeping assist you are probably familiar with) which allows drivers to be ‘hands off’ but ready to resume control should it be required. In other words, don’t move out of your seat!

We’ll be offering these vehicles to lease when they become available, as long as they have the proven operational resilience fleets require. We’re certainly excited to see what they can offer.

As a possible foretaste of what is to come, the delivery company DPD is trialling automated  robotised deliveries in Milton Keynes. Parcel recipients will be notified of a robot delivery and once confirmed that they are home ready to accept the parcel, the robot will be dispatched.

You will then be able to track the robot’s progress on a map and will be notified when it reaches your house or flat with a code to open the secure compartment to access your parcel. Once the compartment is closed, the robot trundles back to its depot ready for the next delivery.

Let’s just hope these delivery robots don’t have a Cruise techno-meltdown moment and end up congregating en masse at a Milton Keynes intersection!

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