Enjoyable Travel and Climate-Friendly Transport of Goods

Sarah Sharples discusses the responsible development of an intelligent mobility system of the future

Professor Sharples, what would be the first thing you would tackle to achieve an intelligent mobility system in the near future?

Sarah Sharples:  In my opinion, two things are particularly important here: We need an efficient electricity network to enable us to further develop automated vehicles including drone technology. And then it is absolutely imperative to always keep in mind that all decisions we now take in the mobility sector, such as technological developments for ships, cars, aircraft or rail, determine the direction for the future. They will still be effective in 2050, by which time we need to have already achieved our climate goals such as Net-Zero, meaning zero emissions and the removal of man-made CO2 from the atmosphere.

What is the particular significance of transport here?

Reducing CO2 and decarbonization have to be seen as a global goal. There are no individual solutions, both in terms of the individual links in the transport chain - truck transport, cars, ships, aircraft and rail transport - and in terms of the countries of the world. Aviation in particular shows the key importance of global cooperation, both in industry and in science. In addition to the transportation of goods, we are also talking here about transporting people, in other words about travel. We have just witnessed the massive disruptions to public transport caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes this brought about will have ramifications for years to come. We still need to conduct a great deal of research into how the individual links in the chain are interlocked.   

What role do people play in the technological development of transport in terms of interacting with and mastering machines, robots, artificial intelligence and production technology?

For me, it is very important that people are placed at the heart of all decisions regarding the development of new technologies. We have to remember that automation means changing a system that has existed for more than 100 years. It means replacing the direct control of vehicles by people with technology. We have to very precisely consider the interaction between people and vehicles, between vehicles and vehicles, and about how to implement these vehicles in the wider infrastructure. We also need a better understanding of the role of automation before giving it control in our transport system. Only then can we work out the path we need to follow when designing automated vehicles as well as how to achieve innovations that promote the decarbonization of our environment while maintaining the mobility of people and goods.


What can human factors as a discipline contribute here?

We are not only concerned with the interaction between people and machines. Our focus is much more complex. We also have a great responsibility regarding the organization of culture. How people live together, how they work, their preferences, their experiences and how they behave, including when in traffic. So, we have to model future scenarios of people’s driving and travel habits in order to design an effective transport system of the future. We have to think of the entire system in human-centered terms. This also extends to the means of transport, whether cars, ships, rail, or aircraft. We have to understand the actions and interactions that impact each other over the course of an entire journey, from booking a trip through to arrival as well as the return journey, so that we can continue to enjoy traveling in the future. 

What do you think we need to take into account when developing machines?

People and technology are very different, as humans react cognitively using all their senses. They react physically and they react emotionally. This complexity makes it difficult to know exactly what role a person will play in a transport system. Human factors is concerned with finding exactly the right fit when bringing people and technological systems together so that both can work together effectively, including in economic terms. What we do know is: People make systems robust through their superior ability to react effectively to new and unexpected situations compared to machines. So designing new systems means integrating humans and technology, and in the right place in each case. One important goal is to provide people with the information they need to make decisions. And, of course, how this information is presented also influences decisions. People always have to be sure that they can control a process. One such example is in-car information. It has to provide the driver with the feeling that they always know how the system works, that the information is up-to-date and that they can influence what the car does.

About Sarah Sharples

Sarah Sharples is Professor of Human Factors in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham as well as Chief Scientific Adviser for the United Kingdom’s Department for Transport (DfT). In this capacity she is responsible for the “DfT Science Plan,” the Department for Transport’s blueprint for the future. Within the areas of transportation, healthcare and manufacturing, Sarah Sharples is particularly interested in human-computer interaction and how people can best cooperate with complex technical systems. This branch of cognitive ergonomics research also includes the development of quantitative and qualitative methods to study this interaction between humans and innovative technology.

Sarah Sharples is co-editor of the 4th edition of the ergonomics and human factors textbook Evaluation of Human Work, and was President of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors from 2015 until 2016. Until 2021, she was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Nottingham.

Men and women have very different approaches to technology. What implications does this have for the design of automated cars, railways, or aircraft?

We no longer need physical strength to move heavy machinery, in part due to the development of servo-steering systems. As such, women and men should be considered equally as users in the development of machines. But in addition to their different abilities and interests, men and women also have different body shapes. And this influences their level of comfort when interacting with technology, such as when driving a car or when using assistance systems.

Other than sex, what other differences between people influence design?

We have more and more technology that records people's behavior and movement or, in the area of healthcare, imaging techniques that provide insight into the body.  This is not the same for everybody. For example, equipment for measuring the flow of blood beneath the skin works with light that is reflected by the skin. The color of a person’s skin affects the intensity of this reflection. Different shades also play a role in facial recognition or biometric data such as iris recognition. We also have to take into account the needs of people with disabilities and restrictions when designing future transport systems. Platforms, stairs and steps must be easily accessible for everyone. The gaps between trains and platforms have to be constructed accordingly and information has to be accessible for people with physical or cognitive restrictions. There is great economic diversity in the population as well as social and cultural diversity, especially when viewed on a global level. Different cultures respond to different signal colors, for example for road marking. Studies in various cities in Europe and elsewhere have revealed very different results with regard to the feeling of safety conveyed by markings for example. The experience of traveling also varies greatly from culture to culture. So, the range that needs to be considered in the development of new human-centered technology is indeed huge if we are to achieve the goal of expanding, rather than limiting, the range of applications.

And then there is the political dimension. What are the special tasks and challenges that you face as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Transport? And what can be done to improve diversity and inclusion, in other words participation, in research and development?

As chief adviser you have a very unusual and privileged role. We must independently assess political work and provide independent scientific expertise to advise policymakers. This also means a responsible use of society’s resources such as taxes.
To achieve inclusion and participation, it is important to involve people from the most diverse backgrounds in the development process. Women have a different background to men, English people to Indians and so on. The different user groups also have to be included. Their special role lies in helping designers to be aware of the diversity in society and to always remember who they are developing technology for. 

The Science Plan which you developed for the Department for Transport and which is intended to ensure that the latest findings from science and technology feed into political decision making refers to the Transport Science R&D Ecosystem. What exactly is this?

We at the Department for Transport are just a small part of the larger “ecosystem” of the entire transport system. We need the support of many different scientific disciplines to further develop battery technology, new motors and more efficient fuel cells. We need to work with industry to include the perspective of the economics of production. We need environmental experts, experts from the shipping industry who know what needs, rules and regulations have to be observed in the maritime sector, experts on drone technology who specialize in the transport of goods to remote, rural regions. We need representatives from local government to address the challenges of implementing new technologies in specific areas and regions. And we have to work together very closely with our colleagues from the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care. Regulations, codes and standards must be coordinated with all these partners. International exchange is also very important as it is essential for, among other things, funding at public and industry level for projects in participating countries. And more than anything, however, the concept of an ecosystem underscores the importance of a holistic systems approach to the future of mobility and how important it is to involve all relevant social groups in the planning process.

Thank you!

Interviewer: Patricia Pätzold