GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment)

Driverless futures

How does design help to increase the acceptance and adoption of driverless vehicles in urban environments?

A Futuristic World
The idea of driverless vehicles is often associated with a futuristic world, one in which the presence of robots and AI technology is ubiquitous in society. Although traditionally confined to sci-fi novels and films, autonomous vehicles are now the next step in vehicle evolution. The term ‘autonomous’ is used to describe something that can self-govern, or act independently. This is significantly different to how automated technology works; for example, a commercial aircraft can take off, fly in the air and land on its own, but it still requires a driver or controller to input data in order to perform. Autonomous vehicles on the other hand, collect and process information independently, which means they are able to adjust their actions according to external conditions.

The development of autonomous technology is often met with suspicion. The notion that humans will be made redundant or overly reliant on robotics already reflects a general unease of automated technology that exists today. But the idea that vehicles or machinery no longer need to be supervised by people because they are able to assess and adapt to situations on their own raises more ethical and philosophical concerns. Cautionary sci-fi tales range from E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) which tells of a time when civilisation becomes entirely dependent on machines in order to live, only to find that when the programming breaks down, the knowledge of how to fix it has been lost, to the Terminator franchise (1984–present) in which the artificial intelligence Skynet is a threat to humanity.

But recently there are more examples that show the potential of robotics in more positive ways, a couple of which include: the light-hearted film Robot & Frank (2012) that shows a near-future where robots are able to assist the ageing, and Interstellar’s (2014) witty AI robot TARS which repeatedly saves other characters, putting humans before machines.

 Although these sorts of fictional examples go some way to changing existing pre-conceptions surrounding autonomous technology, they aren’t necessarily a true reflection of what is currently being developed today. Presenting an autonomous vehicle as something more tangible, this project asks this key question: how does design help to increase the acceptance and adoption of driverless vehicles in urban environments?

Public Engagement
GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment), an £8m research project, was set up to try and understand how the technical, legal and societal challenges of autonomous vehicles might be tackled. The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and the RCA’s new Intelligent Mobility Design Centre are working on public engagement to develop a better understanding of the attitudes towards this technology.

Involving the public in conversations surrounding the development of these vehicles means that their concerns can be taken into account when thinking about the design aspect. This discussion extends to thinking about the kinds of services and infrastructure that will need to be put into place.

In order to improve public perception and engagement with the technology, the team led a series of workshops to explore the possibilities of what autonomous vehicles could be. Since they would no longer need to take a ‘traditional’ form, ideas such as travelling coffee shops, moving cinemas, enclosed gardens and even mobile showers have been posited as potential autonomous vehicles. The workshops helped the team to understand people’s hopes and fears about a driverless future, and led to some significant insights into how the public might embrace the technology; the results of the workshops found that those who are currently excluded from driving, including the elderly and those with additional needs, might be more likely to see the benefits of autonomous vehicles. 

The findings from these initial workshops were explored in a public exhibition at the London Transport Museum, which presented both utopian and dystopian futures. This exhibition then shaped a second series of public workshops which involves the use of ‘Harry’, a driverless shuttle in Greenwich. Though an ongoing project, the aim of GATEway is to produce a publication that shows how design can help to imagine a positive future for autonomous vehicles.    

See 2016 project