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Future of transport

Driverless travel is gathering pace and you have nothing to fear, say industry experts

The role of automation was thrust into the spotlight after a driverless Uber car in the US killed a pedestrian but experts told a panel discussion in Hong Kong that the technology will work out

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 9:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 9:02am

Does the thought of driverless travel give you nightmares?

Automation will “sort itself out” was the message from industry experts discussing the future of travel on Thursday as driverless technology expands in Hong Kong and around the world.

The role of automation and driverless cars was thrust into the spotlight earlier this week after a self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Arizona. But despite such tragic mishaps, design experts, academics and leaders in the travel and transport industries taking part in a Hong Kong panel discussion backed the technology to work.

“Someone was killed the other day in a driverless, autonomous car, but I am sure hundreds were killed in a car driven by a driver as well,” argued Professor Rahim Tafazolli, head of the Centre for Communication Systems Research at the University of Surrey in Britain.

Rail passengers in Hong Kong have already had a taste of the future as full automation exists on the MTR’s South Island Line which operates with driverless trains. The 7.4-kilometre (4.6-mile) line, which has five stations, opened in December 2016.

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MTR Corporation chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang, who chaired the discussion, said automation would play a key role in his industry in tackling a shortage of train drivers as the network expanded.

“It’s increasingly difficult to hire young people to be train drivers. Our drivers are not allowed to carry iPhones on duty. These days, some of our young people do not like that. As a result, we have a problem hiring train drivers,” Ma said.

He stressed there was no “definitive plan” yet but “the future direction is probably fully automatic operations in Hong Kong”.

Paul Priestman, of global transport design practice PriestmanGoode, said the difficult interim period facing automation would pass and its advancement would not stop.

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“I have a healthy respect for it. And it will happen and the benefits are tremendous,” he told the discussion, which was part of British trade event the Great Festival of Innovation.

Another area facing staff shortages at various levels is the aviation sector. Smaller airlines are struggling to retain pilots and recruit new ones as the sector continues to expand at pace.

However, British Airways chairman and CEO Alex Cruz doubted that fully automated, pilotless planes would exist in his lifetime. The technology “is there”, he said, but “it will take a really long time before we [even] move into the next stage of single pilot operations”.

From a safety certification perspective in aviation, it takes time to move from one stage of development, he said. “The next stage is not zero pilots it’s one pilot,” Cruz said.

“I think it will take a significant amount of time before we, humans, are completely convinced that all the safety aspects of a higher degree of in-flight automation of aeroplanes are fully addressed.”