The future of mobility looks bright, but it's not just technological challenges that have to be overcome before driverless cars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and Hyperloop transport are common.
Each of these transport revolutions comes with its own set of ethical issues, legal and liability problems, and the unique challenge of public, government, and business appetite for these changes.
Do people really want cars that can change their route when they get a traffic update, without even telling the occupants? Do governments want to invest in ambitious projects like Hyperloop? Can insurance companies find a way to decide who's responsible for the crash of a delivery drone?
While the technical difficulties may well be overcome with the application of time, science and hard work, these are questions that have to be addressed before these advances can be deployed.
Despite the myriad legal and liability issues surrounding civilian UAVs, they're already in the skies. They carry cameras for the movie industry, help with search and rescue operations, conduct crop surveys, deliver medical supplies to remote regions and much, much more. But the explosive growth of the drone industry has led to some tough questions. What airspace can drones occupy and how can they avoid invading the airspace of piloted aircraft? Who's at fault when a pilot of a jumbo jet is distracted by a delivery drone?
Most countries are regulating the use of UAVs through their national aviation authority, including in the United States, where drones for law enforcement are regulated at state level but civilian UAVs are regulated by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). But these authorities are struggling to keep up with the proliferation of drone use, particularly when owners can be anyone from hobbyists to companies.
Although the drone industry has challenges, there are many investors willing to take a chance on UAV startups. California-based startup Skycart promises delivery of packages within 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, while Skydio is hoping to offer intelligent navigation with its automated drone delivery.
Some startups are tackling the issues of privacy, security, and safety related to UAV use. Grant Jordan is CEO of drone startup SkySafe, which offers a system that can take control of a rogue drone over the air and safely land it. He says the problem isn't just the rules for drones. “One of the biggest problems right now is lack of enforcement tools. It's easy to write rules about where drones aren't allowed to fly, but if people don't obey them, what can you do about it? The law enforcement community currently has no way to stop rogue drones or to find the operator after the fact," Jordan says. "To make matters worse, the regulations around airspace enforcement and coordination are still nebulous."
Privacy and Insurance
For the public, privacy is a major concern. One of the major areas for drone use is to carry cameras, surveying rainforests, covering dangerous search and rescue regions, or just filming a movie or sports event. But with these unseen eyes-in-the-sky, anyone could be recorded, so drone operators still need to ensure they follow privacy rules, including consent for personal images.
Insurance is another area of contention, but better regulation would also ameliorate this issue, according to European financial services firm Allianz.
“As UAVs become cheaper to purchase, smaller in size and easier to operate, insurance considerations come into play. While there haven't been many accidents so far, there have been enough to generate concern among underwriters that the likelihood of collisions will only grow. Once regulations are somewhat standardized, the general use of UAVs will increase, which will likely results in more incidents," the firm said in an expert risk analysis.
Pilot In Training
In particular, regulation of the training of drone operators is needed, Thomas Kriesmann, Senior Underwriter of General Aviation for Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty said.
“Training should cover radio technology, battery technology, flight time calculation, meteorology, security checks for aircraft navigation systems, audible and visible signals, emergency instructions, and air traffic law and clearance issues," he said. “For corporations additional training should include on-board camera image uses, flight communications and planning, flight rules over buildings and forests, advanced meteorology, system maintenance and other technology issues."
To Infinity and Beyond
With UAVs, companies have the drive to get them off the ground and governments are helping by building regulations. But with an ambitious project like Hyperloop, the technological issues are made all the more challenging by a lack of appetite for investment.
In 2013, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk went public with his vision of a new transport system that could take people from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Musk and his firm put the idea and design out there to encourage innovators and entrepreneurs to help open source the technologies that could make the Hyperloop a reality. But introducing the world to Hyperloop at such an early stage in its development has also opened up the project to criticisms about its cost, risks, and whether California or any other state should even want such a system.
The most commonly compared system is a high speed rail connection and many cities in the U.S. and around the world have already invested a lot of money into building high-speed rail networks.
But companies like startup TransPod, which is dedicated to putting Musk's idea into practice, believe the advantages of Hyperloop far outweigh the potential of high-speed rail. “The transportation industry is rapidly changing, influenced by disruptions such as ride-sharing services and trends like population booms, all calling for a deeper investigation into how to most effectively meet demands for public transportation in major cities. Costs and government policies are a big part of the discussion," says Sebastien Gendron, TransPod founder and CEO.
Although he admits that Musk's initial estimates for the cost of Hyperloop were too low - putting the cost at more likely to be somewhere between $15m and $20m per km than ~$13m – he still thinks that Hyperloop offers significant advantages over high-speed rail.
“TransPod's Hyperloop will be able to travel at up to 1220 km/h — 50% faster than a plane and 300% faster than a train. Hyperloop will also be cheaper to ride — the cost to travel via Hyperloop will be less than an airline ticket to travel the same distance," he says.
“It will also be immune to weather conditions. Hyperloop will travel within protected tube environments that will not be affected by the weather. And it uses sustainable technologies. Hyperloop is powered by renewable energies including self-sustaining solar power, and eliminates the dependency on fuel."
Hyperloop Goes Global
Fellow Hyperloop startup Hyperloop One is also a firm believer, although the goalposts have changed a number of times. The firm said in early 2015 that the first Hyperloop would probably connect Los Angeles to Las Vegas rather than San Francisco, but just last month, it said the first version might connect Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates instead. The company has signed a feasibility agreement with Dubai's roads and transport authority to explore the possibility.
Another firm, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), is looking at linking Bratislava in Slovakia with Vienna in Austria and Budapest in Hungary on the European continent.
TransPod, meanwhile, is focusing on the R&D to prove the technology can work.
“We are working with governments, partners, and investors to bring this to life and will unveil a commercial product by 2020," says Gendron.
With UAVs in the skies and Hyperloop replacing rail, there has to be a road revolution as well and it looks like self-driving cars are it. But while they're already being tested and used on the road, there are still questions to be addressed.
Who's Behind the Wheel?
A fundamental issue that needs to be addressed before self-driving cars see mass adoption is one of liability – if a self-driving car crashes, who's at fault? It can't really be the passenger, since the whole point is that they're having no input into operating the vehicle, so who then bears the brunt of responsibility in an accident?
There's some sign that a consensus may be reached that puts the makers of the cars and their software firmly in the driver's seat when it comes to liability. Last year, Volvo said it would be paying out on injuries or damages caused by its IntelliSafe Autopilot system, which is due out in models from 2020. The carmaker believes that the system will have so many safety and redundancy systems in place to avoid accidents that the human driver will never need to intervene and cannot be held responsible.
Studies show that computer drivers are far safer than human ones so the incidence of accidents should be vastly reduced, reducing the potential liability for car makers. Of course, it's the hazy crossover period, when not all the cars on the road are self-driving, that's likely to be a real headache.
Who's in Control?
Once the robots are in charge, the vision is for a perfect system where cars communicate with each other, receive traffic updates and other data from the city, and generally have a massive amount of information available to make driving safe, fast, and efficient. But is this a vision that the public wants to embrace?
A recent study showed that people want driverless cars to be altruistic in decision-making, but once they're in the vehicle, they're more reluctant to have the car acting for the greater good. In hypothetical scenarios where the car has to decide between killing a large number of pedestrians or the single occupant of the vehicle, most people believe the car should crash itself. But if they're inside the car, that altruism is harder to stick to. Of course, the chances of such scenarios should be vanishingly small, and their importance pales in comparison to the great reduction in accidents that will result from robot drivers. Nevertheless, a version of the altruism/self-preservation dichotomy will have to inform robotic decision-making behind the wheel.
The Friendly Car
Even if it's not life-and-death, there are still questions about how comfortable people will be with a robot taking decisions out of their hands. Driving the car is one thing, but what if the car has the ability to change route based on traffic patterns? Will people want the AI behind their vehicle to consult with them first or just go ahead and do it? Only by allowing the robots complete control will passengers reap the benefits of a seamless, efficient transport system, but whether human drivers can relinquish that level of control remains to be seen.
But there are startups that aim to help. Drive.ai is using deep learning to help the AI for driverless vehicles make decisions, but also to teach it how to communicate with humans and encourage trust in the whole process. One example the company has given is that cars enabled with its technology might be able to sound a friendly toot on its horn and display a message telling pedestrians it's safe to cross in front of it.
The technological advances in transportation are on their way, but startups and corporations will need to wrestle with the challenges — and potential opportunities — of a myriad of ethical and legal issues, and how to earn the trust and investment of governments, businesses and the public.