Will Artificial Intelligence mean driverless cars criss-crossing our towns and cities, with passengers relaxing in the back seat? It could mean this, one day in the future. But what most people don’t realise, is that AI, while still in its infancy, is already tip-toeing its way into our transport network – just less visibly than the arrival of autonomous cars would be. AI has the potential to transform our travelling experience, enabling a smoother and more sustainable journey for drivers, passengers and freight, and – crucially – making mobility even safer.
AI is already making a difference. It is part of a new algorithm used to provide expected time of arrival for rail freight trains, and has significantly improved performance over time through machine-learning. Accurate arrival time predictions are important for the seamless integration of rail freight with road and maritime intermodal services. The technology was developed through the EU-supported ELETA project.
In aviation, applications are being deployed to automate flight plan corrections, improve passenger transfers and predict traffic. In shipping, AI is helping container terminals and carriers alike to determine the best sequence for docking and loading/unloading. It does this by randomly trying many solutions and comparing the merits of each solution. It then starts applying its knowledge to each new scenario it tests so they get progressively better.
The transport industry has clearly seen the potential, and is investing heavily. Driverless trains, cars able to detect animals on the road, and vessels able to advise on the most fuel-efficient way to operate along a specific shipping route are the focus of recent trials around Europe. Companies are investing, testing and manifesting their interest. For road transport, we are still far from autonomous cars. But we are already on a path to cooperative connected automated mobility (CCAM). Particularly in talk of cars, the relationship between AI and autonomy is often misunderstood. The former does not necessarily mean the latter. Instead, AI can be used to provide different levels of support to a car driver: from advice on the best route to take given current traffic conditions, to full autonomy.
While AI may appear to be a silver bullet that solves all of our transport challenges, it is nothing without data. From traffic flows to maintenance requirements, data is the fuel that AI needs to perform. It is in analysing big data faster than any human can that AI technologies can enable a vehicle to understand the world around it and make the right decision at the right time. It is AI combined with data that can cut journey times, congestion, unnecessary pollution, downtime for maintenance and ultimately, frustration due to time lost.
The next piece in the puzzle is therefore sharing this data. Transport authorities, infrastructure managers, transport operators, manufacturers, service providers, platforms, final users and non-transport stakeholders are already doing so to improve operations and services, but this is a sensitive topic for many in the industry, so we want to develop a common European mobility data space.
Not all hurdles to AI are technological. The European Commission’s 2018 AI strategy raises the need to prepare for socio-economic change; and to ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework. A Communication on AI’s trustworthiness followed, designed to increase public acceptance while providing ethical guidelines for organisations pursuing AI. Concerns range from safety and jobs to privacy and liability, and it is important that we recognise, consider and investigate each and every one of these anxieties now. Technological progress will be worthless if our citizens are not on board.
Our job in the Commission is to adapt our regulatory framework so that it supports innovation, while at the same time ensuring respect for fundamental values and rights.
The European Pillar of Social Rights, which calls for decent working conditions, social protection and equal opportunities for all, is the Commission’s first response to the challenges posed by new forms of work.
We are also promoting skills development, as skills dictate employability. The New Skills Agenda for Europe also targets smoother transitions and reskilling for people changing jobs or careers.
To improve understanding of the current transformation process in the transport sector, the Commission is also funding research projects on the effects of automation on the labour force, working conditions, and skills requirements. And we are engaging with stakeholders, including our social partners. The results of a study analysing the situation across transport modes and recommending future steps are due at the end of this year.
Alongside social concerns are those from industry: will the current safety legislative framework work for potential new safety risks? Will certification processes need to change to take account of machine learning? Will some traditional players see their role change? Will new alliances see others missing the AI boat?
While I take these concerns seriously, I do not see them as blocking factors. It is clear that all stakeholders will need to collaborate much more than they have done, and to find their place in new value chains. Together, we will find the answers to these questions.
Ultimately, the world is changing. Today, technology and innovation are already challenging our habits and day-to-day lives and I welcome this! But it is not only technology that is changing. Our citizens will no longer accept the status quo. They no longer accept emissions or congestion. They want change. And so do I. I want a modern, accessible, safe and connected transport system that is both sustainable – through decarbonisation – and smart – through digitalisation. The will and momentum for change is there, and AI will be a driver in making that change happen.