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Transportation United Kingdom Robotics Technology

Driverless Buses Ruled Out For London, For Now 84

An anonymous reader writes The office of the Mayor of London went into a bit of a panic this week after their own paper suggested that driverless buses could appear on the streets of the UK's capital at some point in the next four decades. The Mayor's office went so far as to suggest that they were really talking about driverless underground trains. Even more bizarre was the reaction of the city's taxi drivers' association — whose spokesperson claimed that the failure to deliver 'simple' software tasks such as speech recognition meant there was no chance of driverless buses appearing on London's streets.
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Driverless Buses Ruled Out For London, For Now

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  • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @05:55AM (#47587949)

    When I was younger, I worked on speech recogntion problems - well, expert systems and neural networks in general. It was the toughest nut our team had ever been tasked to crack, and we didn't crack it.

    When the man on the street perceives speech recognition to be simple - and coming from a taxi driver, that's more than a little ironic, considering they're essentially human Traveler Salesman Problem solvers - you know technology has overtaken you beyond hope.

    Me, I can't stop being complete blown away by what can be achieved today. Driverless cars are almost a reality everybody can buy, yet I still vividly remember MIT experimental self-driving trucks trying to hold a straight line on a closed circuit at 1 mph!

    • Perhaps the problem of speech recognition is that we try to teach computers our language. We could also make a spoken system where the language and pronounciation is drafted for the task.
      The second unnecessary difficulty of speech recognition is to convert sounds (triphones) into letters.

      • Agreed, why would you need speech recognition on a bus? I can maybe understand on a taxi, but a bus just goes from one stop to another.

        Anyone else notice it said next 4 decades? 40 years, yes everything will be driverless in 40 years. That's sort of obvious, we already have much of the driverless technology in many high end cars now, with them able to stay in a lane, adjust cruise control and even stop to avoid a collision.
      • Perhaps the problem of speech recognition is that we try to teach computers our language.

        AFAIK the problem of speech recognition is that a human can use the context to guesstimate what a garbled message might have meant, but a computer can't since it doesn't have a model about the subject. It would take a fully sapient computer to reach human-level speech recognition.

        • . . .

          AFAIK the problem of speech recognition is that a human can use the context to guesstimate what a garbled message might have meant, but a computer can't since it doesn't have a model about the subject. It would take a fully sapient computer to reach human-level speech recognition.

          Even then its one of the most difficult tasks. Fluid conversation-speech in particular requires a remarkable degree of co-ordination, and incredible processing power - requiring a system that can solve problems in incredibly tight real time windows. Effectively the brain can only do it by making a constant stream of predictions several seconds ahead. Speech is one of the areas where organic brains probably have to use quantum 'computing' to actually work.

    • ATO - GoA 4 (Score:5, Informative)

      by buchner.johannes ( 1139593 ) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @06:36AM (#47588021) Homepage Journal

      Unattended train operation is a reality -- see here []
      I wasn't aware of that. See also here []

      • by blippo ( 158203 )

        It's a trillion times easier than driving a car.

        The existing train protection systems have a map of the track with speed limits, acceleration and braking gradients, and what not.
        Moving the trains automatically is "solved" with a huge amount of engineering, but it's hardly AI. You still need a pair of eyes to monitor everything.

        The "fuzzy" problems that probably need some kind of AI includes:
        - Detecting obstacles on the track ( not that important, nothing is supposed to be near the tracks anyway.)
        - O

        • Operating the doors in a safe manner. (hard)

          How so? You don't even need a computer. Just make it so the train doesn't move if the doors aren't closed, the doors move with little force, and if they fail to close they re-open and try again in 5 seconds.

          ... and probably a thousand other tasks that is done by a human. Reacting to fault conditions for instance (very hard)

          If anything is outside its normal parameters, hit the brakes, cut the power, and send an alarm.

          Human drivers can't really do much else, eithe

          • by dkf ( 304284 )

            Operating the doors in a safe manner. (hard)

            How so? You don't even need a computer. Just make it so the train doesn't move if the doors aren't closed, the doors move with little force, and if they fail to close they re-open and try again in 5 seconds.

            I've seen a few driverless trains around the world (e.g., in Paris, Copenhagen and at ORD in the US for transfer between terminals) and they usually operate with two sets of doors: one set on the train, and the other on the platform. This keeps people from accessing the track area except when the train is there to let them board. Combine this with obstruction detection when the doors are closing (without which millions of automatic doors wouldn't be safe) and I think we can say that this particular problem

      • 25 people have died on the Portland Max tracks (driver operated trains). 54 people have died on BC's Skytrain tracks (automatic trains).

        • You make it sound like the trains are crashing, killing people. Of the 54 Skytrain deaths, 44 are suicides, and the rest are people falling onto the tracks at the stations and being struck by trains. These are not deaths due to train collisions. There have been no Skytrain collisions since it opened in 1985. Perhaps you were thinking that a driver would have spotted the person on the track and stopped the train - but that’s pretty doubtful. Trains don’t stop on a dime. All in all, nearly 3
          • Right - so how many of those suicides would have been prevented if a driver saw someone on the track and was able to stop the train successfully?

            I've been on the Max where we stopped and I saw a whole set of clothes/shoes on the platform - there was a kid in his undies about a mile up the track that the driver saw, did a very hard stop quickly enough and was able to get help for this youth.

            See what I'm saying? Train tracks are probably the most controlled environment for AI to exist, but if you can't handle

            • Probably not many. There's not many spots on the Skytrain track where you can see the track "about a mile up", especially coming into stations. The design of the track is recessed, which doesn't help either. Additionally, if I recall correctly most of the suicides have been of the "throw yourself in front of the train as it enters the station" variety. There are closed circuit cameras monitoring the stations (not to mention transit police some of the time), and they DO stop the trains if something goes

              • And on further examination... Skytrain daily ridership is apparently about 3x greater than MAX ridership. Trains run 3-4 times more frequently (2-7 minutes vs 15 minutes). Per train or per rider, that would make Skytrain arguably safer than MAX.
            • Right - so how many of those suicides would have been prevented if a driver saw someone on the track and was able to stop the train successfully?

              Trains with drivers don't tend to stop before they run over people, especially suicides. They can't. There's a lot of kenetic energy, and very modest traction on metal wheels/rails. So probably zero or there about.

              • You didn't even read my post - I was on a train where they did stop for someone that was on the tracks - it was a very bone jarring stop too - like so fast that if I wasn't holding on to something for dear life I would have broken my nose.

                I'll give you they can't stop for everyone, but there would be conditions where they could and should.

            • by guruevi ( 827432 )

              There is technology out there that could detect humans/animals even in the darkest portions (in tunnels etc) well in advance, outside human drivers' visual range. However whether or not that would make a difference is a big question, you can't stop a chunk of steel weighing in at 10T in a matter of seconds - well, you could (rocket boosters and whatnot) but then the meat bags inside the train would be omelets.

            • The alternative hypothesis is that as someone who has chosen to commit suicide by train, would you prefer to watched in your final moments by a train driver, or would you prefer a little privacy

        • Well first.. those two numbers are very similar.

          Second- as he points out, a lot of them were suicides. Suicides also occurred on the Portland.

          These are exceptions which will be figured out- and once they are there (and they will be) will never be "rookie" drivers or "sad drivers because they had a death in the family" or "old drivers" or "sleepy drivers" again.

          And if you are suicidal enough to jump in front of a train (a grisly way to die), then you are probably going to find another way to suicide (like j

      • by Trogre ( 513942 )

        I would just like to point out that the AI required to drive a train that effectively requires no steering nor split-second decisions is completely different to what would be required to acceptably drive a car.

    • Taxi drivers have a reputation (whether deserved or not I will not speculate) for having heavy accidents. However I don't see why speech recognition is necessary. A keyboard and screen, or a touch screen would be fine to say where you want to go.

    • Why is he wrong? I agree speech recognition is a complex problem, but today its only marginally better than when I was a child and I was born in 76. I love to play around with Google now and show it off to friends - but its not perfect - I'd say its about 60%-70% on simple stuff - Google now seems about as good as the IBM speech recognition system I got to play with in the 90's and that was pretty mind blowing.

      I also used do document imaging at a university, and even the best OCR engines with the best image

    • by guruevi ( 827432 )

      Speech recognition has been in computers since OS/2 Warp and MacOS9. It's a 'solved' problem. However we speak much slower than we either think or type/move mouses so it's a bit of a solution looking for a problem (and with mobile there are some practical uses eg. driving a car but it's still weird to talk to a device in public as if it were your butler; heck it's weird to talk to a human butler). What isn't solved very well is understanding natural language and having a 'conversation' with a computer.

  • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @05:58AM (#47587959)

    There have been a number of drivers' strikes that I'm sure make them unpopular. No doubt management would leap at the chance to be rid of them. The hard part will be keeping the union from finding out too soon and taking preemptive protest action against redundencies.

    • There are already some driverless underground railways in operation. For example in Nuremburg and even in London. Buses would be possible when driverless cars are working. In most cases talking to the driver is limited to asking for a ticket by specifzing the destination. A ticket machine can provide the same service.

    • Actually, the technology is just about there for no-driver subway and commuter rail trains. Japan could probably start implementing this on their subway systems probably within a decade (they're already doing this on monorails and automated guideway transit systems).

      • I'm on a driverless train right now, the Docklands Light Railway on London. It's been running without a driver since 1987, the one accident was minor, and under manual override.

        A Wikipedia list was posted above of similar systems.

  • Well done to timothy for replacing blog link with actual news article link in summary.

  • How many drivers? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MrL0G1C ( 867445 ) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @06:07AM (#47587973) Journal

    Tried googling, couldn't find anything much other than job adverts.

    How many professional drivers are there in the UK or US? Including bus, taxi, cab, private mini bus, postal, delivery and haulage? My guess would be 500,000 to a 1,000,000 in the UK alone.

    That's a lot of jobs that could be lost to autonomous driving.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Only because jobs are lost doesn't mean its bad. The problem arises when it gets to distribute the advantage gained from the cost cuts. Do you give it to the rich? Do you build a welfare state? Perhaps invest into better life quality? Luxurious government systems (like Democracy -- I think democracy *is* a luxury)? Less work hours? Instead of cutting 80% of the jobs, you could make 5 people work one day a week. The question "who pays that?" misses the point: progress pais that, we only need to determine how

      • I agree that the distribution of the benefits of progress is a big problem, but consider also the distribution of losses. By its very nature, technological progress tends to cut low-skilled jobs, because those are the easiest to automate. In general, when progress happens it means we as a society have to become more educated just to get on the bottom of the employment ladder. If anything, the distribution of benefits should be generously apportioned towards creating and extending free education up to gradua
      • At least the UK has NHS.

    • From the numbers I was able to find, my city of 1 million people has close to 1500 bus drivers for local transit. Assuming .15% of the population in total, and the US with a population of 300 million, that's gives 450,000 local bus operators. It might be more or less if my city isn't average, or if you account for larger cities having subways, which require fewer drivers, but still I would say it's a decent estimate.
      • by Imrik ( 148191 )

        You also need to account for the 20% of the population that live in rural areas that aren't usually serviced by busses.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Oh god, it will be just as horrific and devastating as when so many veterinarians, stablehands, blacksmiths, buggy makers, and drivers lost their jobs after cars replaced horses!

    • That's a lot of jobs that could be lost to autonomous driving.

      Seems to me a lot of jobs were lost when we gave up on horse-drawn carriages also.

      So, should we be required to keep professional drivers employed in spite of the job being completely pointless in a few years to a decade?

      • False equivalence (Score:4, Insightful)

        by aepervius ( 535155 ) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @07:38AM (#47588089)
        The loss happened at the heigth of industrial revolution where there was a lot of other job openning, compeltely new job market for uneducated and untrained people.

        Nowadays the job market for untrained and potentially uneducated job is *shrinking*. This is not the same as back when horse cariage were gone and automobile came in.

        There is a high chance that untrained and uneducated job lost today, are definitively lost thru job market shrinkage. Think about that. Think about what that means for the economy as a whole when 100.000 jobs are lost. Nothing good for the economy or for the social stability.
        • Back during the industrial revolution, 80 hour work weeks and child labor were the norm. All those children lost their jobs permanently, and adults had their hours cut in half. How horribly it would be if our hours were cut further and we were forced to enjoy ourselves!
        • It's spelled heighth; you know, like "length, width, heighth and weighth."

      • It'll be a long slow death, commercial aviation has been in this position for decades and most commercial ops still require a crew of 2. There are a lot of factors that can go wrong, especially when co-mingling autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles. What you will see though is wage pressure and those jobs will pay less.
    • Yes, and the buggy-whip makers won't be pleased, either.

      That argument does not pass the "So what?" test, and never has. Technology advances, and society changes; it's why we're not still all running around dressed in skins, hunting down our food with rocks. When it does, some types of job inevitably become less-sought, or even redundant. If that job's what you do, or me, that's just tough; the world doesn't owe anyone a living. If your job goes away, you go look for another. Yes, there's a social argument f

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      Well, from Norway the total figures for land transport of goods and people is 4,6% of the employment, though that may include related service like loading and unloading. However, there's also work in the primary industries (agriculture, forestry, mining) and many operating trucks and such in production industries that are also potential targets for automation. The biggest productivity boost is that people could use the time they spend driving for other things though. Limiting myself to personal cars (not ta

  • Robotic automobiles are just one small example of what will happen quite rapidly now. Governments do not confront the problem and almost no group at all gives voice to the problem. We are going to eliminate almost 100% of human employment. And that is a good thing as long as our financial structure is built around the change. A few sociologists have made statements about how this rather drastic change will come upon us. Basic concepts that we are familiar with will vanish. Capitalism wi
  • Kudo's for ruling out a service that doesn't exist yet. Thats getting ahead of the game. Think of all the things that one day might exist that we could go ahead and regulate right now! Here's one that should be banned:

    touchscreen underwear.

    Any other recommendations?
  • ...are already quite common. That's nothing new. Fully automated subway trains have been deployed all over the world. I recently rode one in Barcelona (the new L9/L10) and it was quite nice. That should be (relatively) uncontroversial. Busses navigate extremely complex environments. Subway trains navigate remarkably simple, controlled environments.

    • We already have them in London on the Docklands Light Railway. Been running since 1987 []

      Even some deep level Tube lines were built to have driverless trains but the Unions won't let Tfl introduce them.

      • by Mirar ( 264502 )

        I find this the most interesting comment in the thread so far. I was wondering, how are driverless buses within 4 _decades_ unlikely?

        Of course they are unlikely, because the union will stop them.

      • The Victoria line has driverless trains since the late 60's, but they still have a 'driver' to open and close the doors. Not sure why this can't be done by platform staff, probably a union thing.
  • Why would you need speech recognition on a London bus? You never talk to the driver. You get on, touch your Oyster card to the reader, and get off when you get to your stop. That's it. It's a flat rate fare. You can't even use cash on them anymore - you have to use an Oyster card.

  • by nightfire-unique ( 253895 ) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:33AM (#47588435)

    Let's face it, driverless buses don't really exist. But so long as we don't regress back into the awful world of proprietary or non-standard extensions, why should buses need drivers outside of those shipped with the kernel?

    Methinks the mayor of London has a soft spot for microchannel!

  • Trains are actually the easiest vehicle to automate, because they run on fixed tracks. The automation system need only worry about merge points, plus what is ahead and what is behind the train. Buses are easier to automate than cars because they run on fixed routes at relatively slow speeds, but the liability exposure of a busload of people in an accident is much greater.

    • I imagine the elimination of blind spots is another thing that will be an even bigger advantage for busses than cars.

  • Once driverless car technology has sufficiently matured, there will be no need for buses, underground trains, or any other current public transport system. City authorities should be planning for driverless cars (including driverless "taxis" for those who do not own a car) instead of continuing to think about and invest in soon-to-be-obsolete modes of transportation.

    In addition to the regularly mentioned benefits of driverless cars, such as reduction in road deaths, and freeing commuters to use travel time

    • by dkf ( 304284 )

      Once driverless car technology has sufficiently matured, there will be no need for buses, underground trains, or any other current public transport system.

      Are you sure about that? You seem to be assuming that everyone will be travelling from and to different places and that there will be no concentrations of people attending the same location at the same time. It's been my experience that people don't work like that. I also suspect that the price that these vehicles would charge would make them rather less economic than you think. Unless there's evidence that what you propose would be cheaper than public transport currently is, or that there will be no common

  • I've seen bus drivers take a corner without considering the other lane, and wipe out a driver and passenger in a truck, waiting in the turn lane. I've seen a bus driver carelessly activate the bus-stairs-convert-to-wheel-chair-lift before it was safe, completely knocking over an elderly wheel-chair bound person onto the concrete, head first . . . and then just sit there, not doing anything, requiring myself and another passenger to jump off and assist the person.

    I don't see how automation can do much worse.

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter