} ;

Design Essay: The role of humans in AVs

12 November 2018 | by Drew Meehan

When Renault unveiled its EZ-Pro concept at IAA Hannover in September, it was making a very clear stand on the role that the French company sees for people in its fast-developing EZ family of autonomous vehicles. The EZ-Pro is Renault’s first Light Commercial Vehicle (LCV) concept in this family of vehicles, and by placing a human operator front and centre, the designers have emphasized the ongoing role that they see for people in an automated future.

Some other concepts we’ve seen this year take a vastly different approach, pushing people into the background or eliminating them completely from anything but passive interactions. With such different paths being explored, is there a clear solution that is better than the others, or are we at the beginning of a long battle over the role of people in automated systems?

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Toyota was the first to show an LCV in 2018 with its surprise unveiling of the e-Palette in January at CES. The e-Palette is a modular, eight-wheeled, autonomous, electric, shared-mobility box-on-wheels. It ticks every box in the AV/EV concept sweepstakes – and arguably ticks about three too many for a hard model with LED screen windows to support. But at the heart of e-Palette is Toyota’s vision of the future: a data- and robot-driven logistics puzzle.

While their introduction videos show cities teeming with people interacting with the e-Palette, they are conspicuously absent from the factory, warehouse, or delivery process. Instead, the common human jobs of today are replaced by remote faces on screens, apps on phones, or even Russian doll-style delivery robots within delivery robots.

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People are clearly important to Toyota’s vision of the e-Palette future, but only as consumers, users and passengers. That seems a bit out of character for Toyota, but the e-Palette is clearly an entirely new proposition for the company and meant to push the thinking very far forward.

Mercedes’ Vision Urbanetic concept, on the other hand, clearly thought about how people would be part of the process. Also unveiled at IAA 2018 alongside the EZ-Pro, the Urbanetic uses a modular electric skateboard platform and multiple bodies that can be connected on top.

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Two were shown for the concept, a highly-styled passenger body and a vertically corrugated but otherwise plain cargo body. Both attach to an electric chassis that integrates the full DRG (including a large Mercedes grille and on-brand headlights) and some very swoopy wheel arches.

As opposed to Toyota’s introduction videos, Mercedes have clearly made sure to show people in the operation of the Vision Urbanetic concept.

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However, we’re not sure it’s a future we’re going to like, because it seems to relegate humans to the type of mindless warehouse work that Amazon has been criticised for. While the concept drives itself around the city carrying people, goods, and sometimes nothing but a bare chassis, one thing that apparently still requires people is the work of changing the body from one type to another. Manually.

A vision of an automated future where people do nothing but service the robots sounds like the basis for a dystopian sci-fi novel, not the way to win widespread acceptance from a cynical public…

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…Which is where Renault’s EZ-Pro concept stands out. It is also an electric skateboard platform with box-like pods on top, but the French company has gone out of its way to think about the people involved. How humans interact with autonomous vehicles is at the very core of the concept.

While the EZ-Pro is designed exclusively for city environments, the train-like platooning is designed to minimise traffic disruption and footprint on the roads. Out in front of the ‘train’ is a special pod with a windscreen and someone who at first glance appears to be a driver, but is actually what Renault call a “last-metre” solution to the AV problem. A delivery person for fragile or perishable goods. An onboard logistics manager. A friendly face for our robotic future.

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The pods themselves are also designed to have both automated and human interactions. While some might deliver goods to restaurants or businesses without human input, others, like the popular café at the Paris Motor Show, have been expressly designed to become meeting points. AV food trucks? That’s the way to win popular opinion.

At the moment, all of these concepts rely on technology that just isn’t ready or available yet. Autonomous driving tech is developing incredibly quickly though, and while AVs may never replace our personal cars and ride the roads en masse, it’s clear that their use in limited geofenced areas and under controlled circumstances is very close.

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In fact, startup Einride already has a (single) fully autonomous T-Pod working in Jönköping, Sweden on a trial basis. That vehicle’s design doesn’t even allow for a human driver of any kind, instead rethinking the LCV from the ground up, with the sensor-only cab up front enabling more usable cargo space in the same footprint as a classic ‘driven’ vehicle. Meanwhile, a safety driver is sitting behind a monitor halfway across the globe, piloting remotely if needed.

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That remote driver is likely to be the start of a major trend for automated vehicles. Not humans’ jobs being replaced, but rather human jobs being displaced. Sometimes that move will be to another part of the process, but sometimes to another part of the world entirely. Decisions will be based on both economic reasons and expertise, and will likely create unusual jobs in unlikely locations.

It is also likely to limit acceptance of AV Light Commercial Vehicles in Europe and North America, where people are still hurting from the loss of jobs to outsourcing and cheap overseas labour. Crashing into an AV in Hamburg only to find out the driver is in California is sure to cause problems, as are the visions of robots making pizzas, delivered to your home by a mini robot inside a robot car.

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With autonomous vehicles, technology is just one part of the challenge to becoming a reality. Economic reasons might make these vehicles desirable for commercial applications quickly, but without public acceptance and a sense that people are still integral to the process, AV adoption will be much harder than automakers want to believe.