When we asked them in 2017, 81% of British adults said they wouldn’t travel in a driverless car, and only 25% said they would in five years’ time. The populace is nervous about automation, but reassurance and enthusiasm aplenty are available from the experts beavering away to create connected autonomous vehicles that will be fit for purpose – and will change our lives for the better.
“Automation is a brilliant idea,” Marina Magnabosco beams from the office of Oxbotica, a British autonomous vehicle software company, where she works as a Technical Product Manager. “If you can make a long journey easier by taking out the driving, why wouldn’t you?” Nominet works alongside Marina and her team in the DRIVEN project, a collaborative quest to develop solutions to the infrastructure challenges that must be overcome for wide scale deployment of autonomous vehicles by 2019
“Automation takes away all the dull aspects of a task that people don’t like doing,” Marina explains. “It makes things simpler, but also less risky.” Safety is one benefit that cannot be overstated, especially as currently there are almost 200,000 accidents per year on UK roads, 1,700 of which are fatal.
“If we have 100% automated cars on the road, there is the real potential for there to be no accidents. To be part of the team that is developing cars that drive in a safe way is hugely exciting – it’s paramount that these cars don’t have the flaws that human drivers have.” Marina is a technical project manager but likes to be hands-on with the vehicles. “I’m an engineer, and I love to get involved in all the technical aspects of it. It’s such a pleasure.”
Her role at Oxbotica is the latest in a career peppered with automation, such as working for Ocado to develop new technology for its industry-leading automated warehouse. It was for her studies, which then turned into amazing career opportunities like these, that brought Marina to the UK from her native Italy, although she struggles with the fact that British people “don’t seem to understand what engineers do”, to the detriment of the talent pool.
“In Italy, being an engineer brings real recognition and respect. You even get a title; in Italy I am Engineer Marina Magnabosco, and its seen as a bit glamourous – as well as hard, involved and specialised work.” She suggests the lack of awareness here in the UK could be one of the reasons why too few youngsters, notably girls, don’t consider engineering as a career regardless of a natural interest in fixing things that could be developed to become a satisfying job.
“I was always a practical child. I made my own doll’s house, inspired by my mum who worked in the fashion industry and who was always making clothes, as well as my dad, who taught me how to use carpentry-based tools,” Marina explains. She was fortunate to be supported and encouraged, both by her parents and the teachers who pushed her towards a technical high school when they spotted her aptitude for subjects like maths. She happily followed the teachers’ advice, although the realities of life at a technical high school were harder to cope with.
“My mum dropped me off on the first day and I literally couldn’t see another girl anywhere. I was terrified, and completely overwhelmed – I was 13 and quite shy.” She found other girls eventually – there were three in her class of 30 – and quickly developed a thick-skin. “The boys were always respectful, but they were just different, they joked in a different way. I had to learn to be confident and value my contribution, and the experience really shaped me.”
It also enabled her to cope with a future of being in the minority, from university in Italy where she studied Aerospace Engineering (with just 10% of females on her course) and throughout her career. “I wish more females would do what I do, but we also shouldn’t hire someone just because they are a woman. We still must always hire the best person for the job, and often that is the man because girls are not studying these subjects.”
While resistant to becoming an engineer poster girl, Marina is committed to encouraging youngsters to consider following in her footsteps. “I’d love to be able to mentor someone, and I like the idea of inspiring girls to believe in themselves and follow the things they are passionate about. Then life is so rewarding – like mine!”
With such enthusiasm to match her technical proficiency, the DRIVEN cars are clearly in safe hands. Those who remain unconvinced about surrendering their driving skills on occasion should be reassured by Marina’s own confession: “I love my car. I have an Alfa Romeo; it’s a driver’s car and I will always love to drive it. But,” she continues, “for long or complicated journeys near where I live, it would be great to be able to jump in a driverless car. My partner’s family are in Scotland so I would definitely like the option of being driven all that way. It’s so much more convenient and would free up time for me to read a book, videocall family or watch a movie perhaps.”
As with so many other technological advancements, convenience will trump other concerns. “And driverless cars won’t necessarily affect existing manual roles,” she concludes. “Think about supermarket delivery drivers. They would still go with the delivery but wouldn’t have to drive all day. Instead, they can help the customer, unload things, catch up on admin tasks in the van. We still need a human element in automated processes; we will just be able to let go of the boring bits.”
Find out more about Nominet’s work on autonomous vehicles and our involvement in DRIVEN here.