Professor Adam Beaumont talks to Annie Turner about the future of transport where autonomous cars will be just one element of the 3D traffic puzzle that includes jet suits, drones and robots. The future is much closer than you think, as his various ventures prove.

Annie Turner : You talk about the importance of bringing expertise and experience from outside the automotive industry to autonomous vehicles – which sectors and what could they contribute?

Adam Beaumont : A lot of the driverless technology we’re seeing is focused on getting the vehicle to conduct itself in relatively easy environments. For example, closed campuses, motorways (everything travelling in the same direction in straight lines). As you approach cities, you have a lot more variables and a much higher traffic density. As a result, you’ve got a much greater number of decisions involved in driving safely.

Spatial awareness is key to coordinating tomorrow’s transport. It’s not just going to be cars but also drones, jet suits (this technology exists), smart vans, lorries, pedestrians, delivery robots (check out) and more. They will be literally coming from every angle. The disciplines that are evolving best to cope with this 3D transport puzzle are virtual reality and gaming. The algorithms used to control multiplayer 3D games are the kinds of technology we want to be aware of the spatial relationships between multiple moving vehicles.

Innovation will mean more efficient logistics: imagine if trucks can travel at night, slowly, but still more efficiently on quiet roads and without tired drivers; and if robotic street sweepers cleaned our streets in the small hours.

The same innovation will allow public access to on-demand transport – imagine a drone the size of a transit van, which can take half a dozen people up to 5Km quickly and with no fuss, paid for with a swipe of your embedded RFID chip. Maybe embedded chips are going too far – but the technology exists now.

AT : You stated that, “driverless cars, for example, will simply join the traffic queues – we need cross-city communication and coordination via the [5G] next generation of mobile network technology to unlock the potential of driverless platforms.” Tell us more!

AB : An autonomous vehicle is one that can drive safety and conduct itself with regard to road hazards like bikes and pedestrians. If we had thousands of them on the road they would create traffic jams. It’s certainly more efficient to separate autonomous and driven cars, but this segregation is not doable in dense urban environments where we can’t divide lanes.

Also, we will have to work on the human comfort factors around autonomous vehicles: a self-driving car might ‘think’ missing another car by a centimetre is acceptable, but that would scare most humans. Our robot car friends will have to adopt a more human approach to driving around us.

This is where 5G becomes relevant. Over the past decade we’ve moved from circuit-switching where, by design, networks routed data over multiplexed synchronous digital hierarchy bearers which literally bounced data up and down the country. Today’s mobile networks use packet switching on which IP routers route data locally. This shortens round trips, so there is less latency and jitter, and better voice and data experiences.

5G architecture makes those round trips short enough for us to monitor an array of fast moving vehicles that are close to each other many times per second. We can check parameters like their braking and steering systems, and respond in real time if a problem is detected to prevent accidents.

The same rapid decision making can be used to ensure vehicles don’t travel faster or slower than necessary to maintain a steady flow of traffic, within and between cities. We could set priorities so that all vehicles know when they are due at their destination and could negotiate with counterparts to ensure their contents reach the train station on time, say, at the gentle expense of others with a more flexible timetable.

Will autonomous vehicles have precedence? The only way we can deploy this technology is with the irrevocable directive of ‘human first’ so autonomous cars will always give way to those driven by humans where they are integrated.

Adam Beaumont

AT : How will 5G and autonomous vehicles reshape our cities? What will the biggest benefits be? Do you foresee any downsides? Might it create a division between cities that deploy this approach and those that do not or that lag?

AB: I see many opportunities. As we become more connected (which is the easy bit), we create more data. We then need to work out how we use this data to make a better society and safer society, which is of great interest to me and my colleagues at Leeds University Institute of Data Analytics. Cities that sit at major transport confluences will be able to leverage autonomous logistics to their advantage.

Low-latency networks will allow us to transmit skilled practices over distance such as remote surgery, airport control tower-as-a-service, drone pilot services, online babysitter-as-a-service and much more. All that said, the ultimate test of technology is what humans are comfortable with, such as letting our 5G-enabled autonomous vehicle (which updates us in real time) take our children to school. I love technology, but we’re not there yet.

Professor Adam Beaumont founder and CEO of NorthInvest was interviewed by Annie Turner, editor of IoT Now Transport

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