Autonomous cars, driverless trains, remotely controlled excavators: everyday new tests and applications on the field show how the sci-fi future described by Isaac Asimov in the ’60s is quickly becoming our present. With a growing number of questions we will need to give an answer to.
One of the most compelling ones is probably this: will we still need drivers in the future?
“Autonomous” means a lot of different things
Autonomous cars are improving day by day. There are a lot of technical, legal and ethical issues at stake, but it is just a matter of time now: sooner or later, we will have self driving cars on our streets.
But what does “autonomous” mean?
In any possible scenario, it seems most unlikely to find in the next decades completely autonomous cars driving on the street without any kind of human control.
They will probably need to be equipped with a Human Machine Interface, at least to handle extraordinary situations, like an emergency. And, clearly, someone able to drive it at the wheel.
Trains are a different story
A lot of cities in the world are already provided with driverless metro trains today.
Instead of the drivers’ cab at the top, there is just a panoramic windscreen through which passengers can look at the approaching tunnel.
All these trains are “autonomous” meaning that they are fully automatic in their basic functions: traction, braking, stop and start, door opening and closing, and so on. But they are still monitored by a human, who is not on board but located in a separate control station.
It is not a remote driving mode, because trains are controlled by automatic systems.
But it is just a matter of words: people that monitor moving trains are or are not drivers?
All driverless trains also hide a Human Machine Interface “somewhere” for emergency and maintenance duties (like the Portable Driver Desk in the picture above). These kind of interfaces need to be very “friendly” for everyone to easily use them: no licensed technicians, no high qualified train drivers, just someone who randomly has to use them in order to drive in exceptional circumstances.
What will the future look like for drivers?
But there is much more to autonomous driving than this.
For example, a Korean company has just performed a test of a remotely controlled excavator from a distance of 8.500 km, using 5G technology.
Amazing and impressive.
The “driver” controls the machine from some office far away. The idea is to use this kind of technology to control industrial machines in dangerous areas and for remote training. But it is easy to imagine the next possible steps, such as using one controller for multiple machines, combined with artificial intelligence to improve performances.
In any case, they will need a workstation designed for the driver’s remote control.
With new challenges to meet: on one side the driver will have “improved capabilities”, on the other he will need “improved senses”. Augmented and Virtual reality for “immersive” remote work may be the answer.
There are more than 1,3 million kms of railway lines in the world and approximately 180 cities with metro systems.
For the most part, they are not driverless.
It makes sense to build new lines based on driverless technology, but to convert existing lines it’s a different story: it is very expensive and hardly efficient.
High speed and long distance trains are more or less in the same conditions, with the need to have someone on board to manage possible emergencies.
As for cargo fleet, there are tests running around the world at the moment with pretty much the same outcome.
CONCLUSIONS: the evolution of the driver’s role
In the future we will probably face a mix of manual, assisted and fully automatized systems.
So, here lays the answer to our original question: the drivers’ role will need to evolve, but it will be at least as important as today. Probably more, because they will need to be ready to manage more complex situations.
The truth is that driving in the driver’s cab, monitoring the situation from a control room or remotely controlling a machine are all different ways of driving.
There is and there will always be a clear common factor: the man has to interact with the machine.
The way of driving will evolve, and the “driver’s cab” of the future will be a highly technological workstation (not necessarily on board).
The challenge will be to provide this technology with the great improvements of ergonomics and style needed to create the best possible conditions for humans to work.
What do you think of this forecast? Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments.
See you next time!