18.5 Transportation

Transportation, of people and cargo, is a key sector of the economy, satisfying a variety of social needs. It serves as a useful case study to examine the social and economic impact of AI. Autonomous vehicles are being developed and deployed. The technologies used for accurate positioning in self-driving vehicles are covered in Section 9.8. Some of the ethical choices surrounding self-driving cars are considered in Section 2.4. The role of preferences in automated route planning is discussed in Section 3.9. Using constraints to schedule deliveries by a fleet of vehicles is described in Section 4.9. The positive impact of having intelligent cars and trucks could be large [Thrun, 2006]. There is the safety aspect of reducing the annual carnage on the roads; it is estimated that 1.2 million people are killed, and more than 50 million are injured, in traffic accidents each year worldwide [Peden et al., 2004]. Vehicles could communicate and negotiate at intersections. Besides the consequent reduction in accidents, there could be up to three times the traffic throughput [Dresner and Stone, 2008].

The improvements in road usage efficiency come both from smarter intersection management and from platooning effects, whereby automated, communicating vehicles can safely follow each other closely because they can communicate their intentions before acting and they react much quicker than human drivers. This increase in road utilization has potential positive side-effects. It not only decreases the capital and maintenance cost of highways, but has potential ecological savings of using highways so much more efficiently instead of paving over farmland, forests, or wilderness.

With full autonomy, elderly and disabled people would be able to get around on their own, without a driver. People could dispatch vehicles to the parking warehouse autonomously and then recall them later. Individual car ownership could become mostly obsolete, when an autonomous taxi ride becomes cheaper and more convenient than a private vehicle. Most private vehicles are used only about 5% of the time. Better utilization of the vehicle fleet would significantly reduce the demand for vehicle production and storage. Supported by AI systems, people could simply order up the most suitable available vehicle for their trips. Automated robotic warehouses could store vehicles more efficiently than using surface land for parking. In very dense cities, private car ownership is already becoming obsolete. This trend would accelerate with autonomous vehicles. Much of the current paved space in urban areas could be used for housing, or for environmentally enhancing uses such as parks, playgrounds, or urban farms. The rigid distinction between private vehicles and public transit could dissolve.

These speculations are, at the moment, mostly science fiction. Many early promises of full autonomy have not materialized. The transition to a mixed transportation system of human drivers, autonomous vehicles, transit, pedestrians, cyclists, and so on is challenging.

Short of full vehicle autonomy, many smart driving features such as self-parking, lane keeping, lane changing, adaptive cruise control, emergency braking, and automated avoidance of pedestrians and cyclists are now routine driver aides and safety enhancements. A variety of vehicles, other than cars and trucks, including microcars, e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-unicycles, are now available under the rubric micromobility, often with AI enhancements for semi-autonomy, routing, and vehicle sharing. Public transit, with intelligent crew and vehicle scheduling, and some autonomy is also improving.

Experimental autonomous vehicles are seen by many as precursors to robot tanks, military cargo movers, and automated warfare. Although there may be, in some sense, significant benefits to robotic warfare, there are also very real dangers. In the past, these were only the nightmares of science fiction. Now, as automated warfare becomes a reality, those dangers have to be confronted. Sharkey [2008], Singer [2009a, b], Russell [2019], and Robillard [2021] discuss the dangers and ethics of autonomous weapon systems and robotic warfare.