A couple of major developments have kept the subject of driverless cars high on the UK’s news agenda this month - with both the government and one of our biggest car-makers announcing their intent to clear the way for large-scale testing of the technology and the vehicles involved.
This is despite the spectre of a handful of high-profile incidents still hanging over the technology. The media has picked up on anything and everything, highlighting the perceived dangers of what could happen when a car being driven on ‘auto-pilot’ mixes with vehicles being driven by humans - especially on our busiest roads.
Nevertheless, Jaguar Land Rover has announced that it will build a fleet of more than 100 research vehicles to test the technology over the next four years.
The Coventry Telegraph revealed that the first phase of testing, during what’s planned as a four-year project, will focus on technology to enable vehicles to ‘talk’ to each other, and collect and relay signals passed on through road signs, overhead warning gantries and traffic lights.
Future research will then focus on the ways in which vehicles communicate with each other, in an effort to ensure they can carry out more difficult manoeuvres, such as crossing junctions and switching between lanes safely.
Tony Harper, who heads Jaguar Land Rover’s research team, is confident that autonomous driving technology will help ease the boredom of long journeys - but that it won’t dampen the excitement of exploring the limits of a car’s capabilities on the open road.
“Because the intelligent car will always be alert and is never distracted, it could guide you through road works and prevent accidents,” he believes.
He is also confident that drivers will be able to customise the level of assistance they get from the car, but that the technology will be able to intervene, for example, to ensure that it gets out of the way of any emergency vehicles needing to pass.
Another key field of research is in development of lane guidance systems to help a driver stay in the centre of their desired lane, particularly through a complex area of roadworks.
New And Unknown Risks
Insurers are particularly keen to be involved in autonomous vehicle development from its early stages, so they can evaluate the particular risks which they might present to drivers and pedestrians.
In this respect, a number of our leading insurance companies have given evidence to a government committee which was asked to investigate how risks and fault could be evaluated in the event of a crash involving a driverless car.
Direct Line is calling for changes in the relationship between the sector and motor manufacturers, as both sides would need to collaborate in any investigation into where fault lay in any accident involving an autonomous vehicle.
“We are going to need to have access to data of the vehicle to establish who was driving, a robot or an individual,” said Dan Freedman, who heads the company’s motor development analysts.
The Blue Touch Paper Has Been Lit…
The mere fact that driverless cars are such a hot topic just now in the motor industry clearly shows the degree of impact the technology is expected to have across the sector.
With everyone from the government to the insurance business talking about it - and of course motor dealers themselves weighing in - there’s going to be much time spent and energy expended in chewing over every possible aspect of their use and the implications for other road users.
But the minds developing the technology and their backers clearly believe that every main objection - such as the fear of crashes and their possible consequences - can be overcome, and this is why Jaguar Land Rover is among the mainstream manufacturers wanting to explore its possibilities.
Technological advances will come with driverless cars, these include a system it calls Safe Pullaway, which senses when an autonomously-driven vehicle gets too close to the vehicle in front when in slow-moving traffic or approaching junctions and will apply the brakes.
A further advance believed to be in research will use radio signals to transmit data between vehicles, which could warn an autonomous car and its driver of obstacles hidden around bends or over a hill.
Another innovation could end the bane of many police and emergency crews’ lives, by automatically steering a vehicle out of their paths when it senses their approach. It’s hoped this might be possible even before a driver sees flashing lights or hears the siren, so could reduce the time taken for blue-light vehicles to respond to incidents.
And in order to test all this technology and evaluate how it can be made to work together, the UK government is putting up the money needed to develop the first ‘fully-connected road test environment for vehicles’, a project which was launched by Business Secretary Sajid Javid early in 2016.
Will We Be Able To Embrace The Future?
So the course is clearly set towards a future which at least includes the possibility of driverless cars being used on our roads - and we are all are being invited to give our thoughts, with the government launching a major consultation exercise on the subject.
It has put £30million into a pot to pay businesses to research and develop technologies associated with autonomous vehicles, and wants to get ideas about how even the basic ‘rules of the road’ might need to be changed to adapt to the new environment.
“Britain is leading the way [on driverless car technology development] but I want everyone to have the chance to have a say on how we embrace and use these technologies,” said Former Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
But as tech newsletter The Register has reported, the top-level boost for research has come just as the implications of the first fatal crash involving an autonomous vehicle, on a major road in Florida, are being chewed over. The driver of a Tesla car died when the car ploughed into a truck trailer which it was claimed wasn’t detected by the vehicle’s safety systems.
Former Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, was keen to talk up the benefits which advanced driver assistance technology could bring in, helping cut the quantity of accidents.
As he was involved in sanctioning spending on research in a number of separate local projects, including in Greenwich, South London, Bristol, and a joint scheme between Coventry and Milton Keynes, he stands testament to the focus of the government in helping the UK embrace the driverless car revolution.
The Debate Is On - Have Your Say
The consultation document notes that the exercise will have a long and wide-ranging list of objectives. Most importantly, for manufacturers, it will investigate whether regulations need to be changed to clearly outline how systems which are ‘near to market’ - i.e. in the last stages of testing - can be used.
Anyone who wants to contribute to the consultation can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
With debate being stirred in many quarters across the motor industry and in the public arena, there’s clearly a long road ahead before wide acceptance of ‘robot cars’ is achieved.
But that isn’t stopping the technology’s main proponents, who clearly believe that success lies in accentuating its positive aspects - most notably that the systems are not necessarily designed to allow cars to be driven without any human input, rather that they are intended to help the driver, including by flagging up potential hazards, rather than actually taking over the controls completely.
In that way, they believe, autonomous cars hold out the possibility of people still being able to enjoy driving, rather than simply seeing it as a necessary evil, and a means of getting from A to B.