UK world leading in autonomous vehicles

May 10 2016  

UK world leading in autonomous vehicles

One week before Volvo Cars announced trials of autonomous vehicles in London a panel of experts agreed the UK was a world leader in supporting development of this technology.  Listen to the podcast here.  

Insight into this fast moving and fascinating development for the transport sector was provided by: Iain Forbes, Head of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles; Professor Nick Reed from TRL involved with some of the trials in the UK; and Anders Eugensson, Volvo Cars Director of Governmental Affairs. 

Iain outlined how the UK Government wants to take advantage of the potential benefits:  improved road safety, the ability to run networks more efficiently, opening up transport options to people who have few, and the ability to give people back time that they lose driving.  

Given Volvo Cars has announced trials it was interesting to hear that the UK and America are supportive of trialling and testing autonomous vehicles but that this is not the case in other countries. Anders, who, given Volvo Cars announcement – was very complimentary about the UK regulatory environment. He said:  ‘Some European governments are working towards making this a very difficult process of getting the right vehicles in the market.  They are putting in barriers. I think this is the most threatening situation.’

So how is it that the UK managed to create the right environment for autonomous vehicles? Iain explained how the UK reviewed their regulations to explore if there would to be any barriers to the development of autonomous vehicles.  

Iain said:  ‘We found something really interesting which is that as long as manufacturers follow some basic rules. Follow road traffic law and do what they are doing in a safe way, you can test autonomous vehicles on any road in the UK; which is not the case in other countries.  So we found that our [UK] current regulatory system is a very welcoming environment for people who want to test here’.

With this environment in place, the UK are running a number of trials.  Professor Nick Reed outlined details on the demonstration projects and research underway in the UK, much of which is being delivered within TRL’s UK Smart Mobility Living Lab in Greenwich, London.  Nick said:  ‘It’s exciting to be involved at the heart of these activities and to see how some of the sorts of predicted benefits from autonomous and connected vehicles can be achieved in the real world’.   

Anders explained the approach taken by Volvo Cars in running trials next year of 100 autonomous vehicles in Gothenburg and explained they initially would be on roads without cyclists and pedestrians.

So what might road authorities need to do to support autonomous vehicles?  Anders said:  ‘We would also like to explore the other side, what if you don’t do anything?’   Anders explained how Volvo Cars had looked at what needed to be done based on existing roads and had looked at some approach roads going into London from the west, and their conclusion was:  ‘It seems to be pretty good’.  Anders added that, at a minimum, they need line markings, and that intersections can be a bit of a struggle; but autonomous vehicles could potentially be implemented without significant investment from road authorities.  

Just as car drivers require maps to get around, autonomous vehicles also require these, and very, very, detailed maps at that.  Different from the maps used currently, these need to be very high definition 3D digital maps continuously updated with real-time data.  

Volvo Cars are creating their own maps. Nick asked Anders how often maps would need to be updated as things will inevitably change over time.  Anders replied:  ‘We will build the basic maps but the sensors in the vehicles are going to look constantly at that…and add information’.  So as vehicles drive they constantly pick up information and the maps are continually updated.  Nick noted that there could be benefits to road authorities by improving what they understand about their networks (if this data could be shared).

Although a focus has been on the 1.3 million miles driven by Google’s driverless car as a potential indicator of how the United States might be leading the way. The panel agreed this was hugely impressive, it was still not enough.  As Nick said: ‘In the UK the average distance driven between fatal accidents is 180 million miles.  So you will need a lot more data to prove the safety of automation’.  Nick then added that what Google are doing is still hugely valuable as they are creating real-world data, they are collecting data on the behaviour of the automation and that can be used to check the simulation and validation models.

With such focus, money and media attention, autonomous vehicles are firmly on the agenda.  When customers might be able to buy them is another question but Anders was positive:  ‘We think this is going to play out soon…it’s going to be an additional cost and if you get something additional then you are going to buy it’.  

The interview comes from the latest in the CIHT podcast series where Justin Ward speaks to leading individuals in the transport world.  To find others and to listen click here.

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