Automation continues to be relevant issue

Automation is one of the most pertinent technological and economic topics of the 21st century. Central to the issue are concerns of job loss and mass displacement, especially within the transportation and marketing sectors.

In the political realm, the European Parliament, not without controversy, rejected a proposal to tax robots (well, businesses that own robots) and re-train the displaced human workers. In America, U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has recently embraced a prospective robot and automation tax.

Meanwhile, 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang has built his campaign largely around automation — proposing a universal basic income as one solution to projected job losses — claiming that “we’re in the third inning of the greatest economic transformation of industry in the world,” and that “our politicians don’t understand it all.”

Considering how the delivery robot market alone is expected to grow from the present $11.9 million to $34 million by 2024, with the transition from human drivers to autonomous delivery robots shrinking current last-mile delivery costs from $1.60 to $0.06, automation will continue to be discussed.

Carnegie Mellon University research, from the College of Engineering to the School of Computer Science to Heinz College, is focusing on one of the more positive aspects of delivery automation: energy-saving and consequent environmental friendliness. The U.S. Department of Energy has provided Carnegie Mellon with $2.5 million for research on energy efficiency and mobility intelligence for drones, autonomous vehicles, and robots.

Carnegie Mellon associate professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering and 2019 ASCE Pittsburgh professor of the year, Costa Samaras, is one of the leaders in the project, and discussed the implications of this ongoing research in an interview with The Tartan.

Primarily, his team is trying to figure out how much energy automated delivery robots and their complementing networks could save in the goods transportation market. Samaras estimates at least a 20 percent energy savings.

According to Samaras, “the transportation sector is now the largest contributor to climate change in the U.S. and is overwhelmingly powered by oil products: gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel,” and that “by electrifying as much transportation as possible, we can power transportation with cleaner sources like solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear. Automation can help by optimizing driving patterns and reducing battery sizes, which can save energy."

Samaras considers the research a beneficial environmental initiative, claiming that “by reducing energy use and switching from an oil-powered freight system to an electric-powered freight system, there can be big reductions in energy use, as well as in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.”

When asked about Carnegie Mellon’s greater role in automation, Samaras said that “CMU invented the modern autonomous vehicle, and the Robotics Institute has been a pioneer in advancing automated technology,” adding that “CMU has a long history in interdisciplinary energy analyses, and the many researchers and students affiliated with our Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation make the university a competitive place to do cutting edge energy research.”

“A project like this that brings together engineers, roboticists, and social scientists is a natural fit for Carnegie Mellon. We're comfortable working across colleges and disciplines to solve hard challenges,” he emphasized.

While automation — especially in the context of transportation and delivery — has been and will continue to be a hot-button issue, Samaras finds it important to note that “one misunderstanding about automation is the idea that automation is either going to be all good or all bad for society. We humans have a vote to decide to maximize the benefits and minimize the consequences.”