How will robotics applications change the transport of people and goods?

Modern robot and sports car on white background

Fotolia / iaremenko

Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Brian Kelly,

A study on the ‘Ethics of Cyber-Physical Systems’ has recently been published for the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel. The study examined seven key areas where Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) could have a significant impact. This blog post has been made using information from a technical briefing paper written for the study by Professor Haydn Thompson (Haydn Consulting Ltd, United Kingdom) and Christien Enzing (Technopolis Group, The Netherlands).

CPS are technical systems where networked computers and robots interact with the physical world. They are found in a wide range of services and applications. CPS are quickly becoming a part of transportation and logistics, primary through autonomous vehicles, and it is important that we examine the impacts they will have in this area.

What changes could we see in transportation?

In the area of transportation, for both people and goods, CPS could have profound implications. CPS could help with the automation of vehicles, leading to fully autonomous driving. We already observe the use of blind side monitoring in vehicles to inform the driver of the presence of people, cyclists, cars and other objects that cannot be seen from inside the vehicle. Alongside autonomous passenger vehicles, we may also see the automation of logistics, including trucks, and warehouse storage and retrieval systems. These changes could also have profound implications for our environment. The increased use of robotic systems could allow for a reduction of overall emissions through more efficient management of traffic and goods, by ensuring that trucks operate closer to full capacity or scheduling routes and deliveries to avoid traffic conditions which affect the efficiency of the vehicles.

What changes could we see in safety?

CPS could have a major impact on safety as decisions are increasingly automated. Since the main cause of vehicle crashes is the result of human error, CPS can increase safety by providing increased awareness for the driver, as shown through the blind side monitoring mentioned above, and by replacing human decision-making with decisions made by CPS, which may have a large impact on increasing safety in transportation. The advances in road safety do not only promise to increase road safety, they promise to help reduce insurance costs as well, making driving more affordable. These developments are, however, not without risks, for instance one such risk from the increasing autonomy of vehicles is that these systems could become susceptible to cyber-terrorism through hacking. Another risk is that individuals could place too much faith in the technology, leading to fatal accidents like the recent crash of a Tesla car running with its autopilot system on.

Will there be an effect on privacy?

CPS in transportation could have a significant impact on privacy. CPS require large amounts of data collected by sensors. This may include personal data and private information on individuals, which could be used to determine when people are at home, where they go in the evenings, the route they take to work, who their friends are or where they currently are. Needless to say this information is highly sensitive and may raise concerns about citizens’ privacy. Furthermore, the data could be misused by criminals. These questions of privacy and security need to be thoroughly addressed if CPS are to become a major component of automotive technology.

What is next?

CPS are here to stay and there are many expected benefits from the development of these technologies in relation to transportation. There are, however, several challenges that need to be addressed, such as privacy, safety and security. CPS may benefit transportation systems and society more broadly, if they are introduced correctly, however, in order to achieve this, policy-makers need to account for these concerns and to ensure that the increased use of automated vehicles is both smooth and enjoyable.

For more information about CPS check out this STOA video.

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