Milton Keynes central will be the testing ground for a new mobility solution when the roll-out of a fleet of 40 driverless pods begins early next year.
The foundations for the UK Autodrive project were laid in October 2016 with on-street trials of three LUTZ Pathfinder pods in Milton Keynes by Transport Systems Catapult (TSC). The two-seater pods were developed by Oxford University spin-out company Oxbotica and manufactured by Coventry automotive innovation firm RDM. The next generation of pods, also built by RDM, will have six seats and will transport a selected group of passengers for first/last mile journeys.
Since the LUTZ Pathfinder project started in 2014, the speed of progress has been remarkable, says Neil Fulton, TSC’s programme director. Most surprising of all has been public reaction to the Pathfinder, he says. “I was expecting some negative feedback. I thought there would be some scepticism about how capable the technology was or whether it was safe. But public acceptance of the technology has really surprised me.”
Automated technology is developing more quickly than expected, Fulton adds. “A lot of the cars we are now driving around in have already got advanced automated features.”
Several car manufacturers aim to have self-driving cars on the market within five years, Fulton notes. He sees this as a logical development of the advanced driving assistance systems already offered in new vehicles.
“The features Tesla are introducing will not only keep the vehicle at a set speed on the highway but will also safely take it from one lane to the next.”
We are quite a long way from meeting 100% of everyone’s needs, but things will change quickly. The locations where these types of technologies can be used will be identified and will start to be used
But Fulton voices concern over how users of the vehicles will adjust to this new type of mobility. “The next phase is handing over control from the driver to the vehicle, so that all the features are controlled by the vehicle.”
The levels of automation run from 0 to 5, with technology edging ever closer to level 4 automation, described as ‘high automation’. At level 3 - ‘conditional automation’ - control may in certain circumstances be handed back to the driver. “There is a grey area between level 3 and level 4 automation,” says Fulton. “There are a lot of vehicle manufacturers now saying they are going to miss out level 3 because it is too complicated.”
Fulton says that, on average, 95% of routes taken by vehicles are ‘easy miles’ where nothing challenging happens. But how would a driverless car handle situations that were out of the ordinary?
Google has been monitoring how its self-driving cars respond to “odd scenarios” at its test track in Mountain View, California. Oddest of all, perhaps, was the vision of a broom-wielding woman in an electric wheelchair chasing a duck, says Fulton. “The car wouldn’t have any idea how to interpret something really random like that.”
Vehicle manufacturers need to not only test the limits of the technology but to understand how people react to it, says Fulton. “One person’s reaction is different to the next. It can take anywhere between five and 35 seconds to completely take back control of the vehicle,” he estimates. “It may be you are on the phone and are asked to take back control of the vehicle, so you put your phone down, put your head up, take in your surroundings and then take over. But it is a different matter altogether if you have been asleep. How does the vehicle know if you are on your phone or asleep?”
These “huge societal and human challenges” represent a steep learning curve for governments, vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, says Fulton.
Technology will continue its relentless progress while the government, with TSC’s support, will work to ensure that regulations keep pace with change. But there is confusion over just what automated systems will be capable of five years from now, Fulton suggests. “Some people think that driverless cars mean they will be able to summon a vehicle from anywhere to come and pick them up, but I think we are a long way from that.”
What car makers are aiming to achieve by 2022 are vehicles that will be able to self-drive in certain environments with the driver present, he explains.
But what will happen during the transition period when there are both driven and self-driving vehicles sharing the same roads? “This will be one of the big challenges where there will be vehicles with no connectivity or automation alongside self-driving vehicles,” says Fulton. “At some point in the future I think there will be places where only self-driving vehicles will be allowed. There could be lanes on motorways that are only for automated vehicles.”
The transition to automated vehicles will result in improved safety, Fulton believes. He points to government figures showing that of the 1,732 road fatalities in the UK in 2015 more than 90% were caused at least in part by human error.
Vehicle ownership will decline rapidly with the rise of automation, predicts Fulton. “We will get a significant proportion of the population using shared vehicles rather than owning their own vehicle. The traditional model of someone buying a car and keeping it for five years and then selling it on will become a thing of the past. We will look back and be surprised how quickly things have changed.”
The Queen’s speech earlier this week announced a new automated and electric vehicle bill, which the government says will “allow innovation to flourish and ensure the next wave of self-driving technology is invented, designed and operated safely in the UK”.
Compulsory motor insurance would also be extended to driverless cars, “to ensure that compensation claims continue to be paid quickly, fairly and easily”.
Fulton says: “If you told insurance companies five years ago that they need to start thinking about insuring driverless vehicles they would have probably thought you were a bit mad. Now all the big UK and international insurance organisations are either involved in research and development programmes themselves or are taking a real interest in where this market is going.
“A lot of their business is based on the fact that we have a lot of accidents. If those accident rates are going to come down and vehicle ownership is going to change, they need to be on top of it to maintain their businesses in the future.”
Neil Fulton will be speaking at Smarter Travel LIVE!
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