Driverless cars will be officially trialed on the roads of the UK for the first time as the Government considers introducing big changes to the Highway Code so that they can be used by the public.
It is expected that by 2030 the technology will have reached a level of safety and intelligence that allows drivers to become passengers as cars take over the driving for them. Ministers were due to gather in Greenwich to witness the Gateway’s self-driving passenger shuttle in action, whilst the autonomous Lutz ‘pods’ will be travelling around Milton Keynes and Coventry. The BAE Wildcat, which is a modified military jeep that was produced by the aerospace company, will be tested in Bristol.
Transport Minister, Claire Perry said, “Driverless cars are the future. I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting new development, to embrace a technology that could transform our roads and open up a brand new route for global investment. These are still early days but today is an important step.”
The UK Government wants the country to be a world leader in the technology, which has been spearheaded by Google in the USA, and some of the other biggest vehicle manufacturers in the world.
BMW displayed its prototype at the International CES technology show in Las Vegas recently and demonstrated a new valet service that calls the car to its owner using a smartwatch to summon it.
Audi allowed their own autonomous car to drive itself from San Francisco to Nevada, a journey of more than 500 miles away, whilst Mercedes and other companies can boast their own new driverless cars too.
Google has been testing its own autonomous car for a few years around its headquarters in California, and are hopeful that the technology will be a mainstream fixture on the roads by 2020.
These vehicles have cameras and sensors that can detect other traffic and objects, as well as plotting movements as the car travels along. However, the prototypes have proved to have difficulty with bad weather, problem potholes, temporary traffic lights and not recognising human signals.
It is rumored that Apple are looking to enter the market with a car too after a vehicle that is registered with the company was mounted with a host of cameras, plus taxi app Uber is said to be conducting experiments.
The UK Government has invested £19 million worth of funding into the current UK trials, which it is hoped will also boost the British manufacturing industry.
Ms Perry did admit the project was ‘still in the early days’ but boasted that the new technology had the potential to be ‘a real game-changer’ in world motoring.
On average, drivers in England spend 235 hours behind the wheel every year, which is the equivalent of six working weeks. However, the new technology could mean that people can now get on with work or relax while travelling in their car.
During the trials, driverless cars will have a fully-qualified driver ready to take control of the vehicle if necessary.
Business Secretary, Vince Cable said the UK was already a leader of car technology with electric vehicle manufacturing taking place in Sunderland and Formula One production in the Midlands. He said, “The UK is at the cutting edge of automotive technology, from the all-electric cars built in Sunderland to the Formula One expertise in the Midlands. It’s important for jobs, growth and society that we keep at the forefront of innovation, that’s why I launched a competition to research and develop driverless cars. The projects we are now funding will help to ensure we are world leaders in this field and able to benefit from what is expected to be a £900bn industry by 2025.”
RAC Foundation director, Professor Stephen Glaister has spoken about the importance of getting policy and regulations right, whilst President of the AA, Edmund King said self-controlled cars could make driving ‘safer, easier and more efficient.’ He added, “However, the concept of handing control to a machine is so alien to many drivers that they will take a lot of convincing before they trust and accept it.”
Dr Nick Reed from the Transport Research Lab, who are in charge of running the Greenwich trials, revealed that the shuttles use sensors to avoid hazards. He said, “Safety is paramount in our research and the vehicle is detecting moving objects around it, and if pedestrians are moving into its path it will slow down, and if they continue into its path it will come to a safe stop ahead of the pedestrian.”
Doubts have been raised too, with David Williams, head of underwriting at top insurance firm Axa, saying, “Currently whoever is driving the car, or cars, are responsible for the accident, but going forward what’s it going to be? Is it going to be the manufacturer of the vehicle? The person who programmed the software? And it gets even more complicated, most of these vehicles, they’re not driverless all the time, they have the ability for people to interact and take over.”
During the trial, Lutz Pathfinders will be tested around the streets of Milton Keynes. This vehicle uses 22 sensors, including panoramic cameras, laser imaging, and radar to build a virtual image of the environment around it.
The Venturer consortium aims to examine whether autonomous cars can reduce congestion on the roads and make them safer. The tests are being run in Bristol and will want to investigate the reaction from the public and the legal implications too.
Meanwhile, Greenwich is running the Gateway scheme, which is being led by the Transport Research Laboratory consultancy with General Motors, the AA and RAC. Together, they plan to carry out tests of automated passenger shuttle vehicles, as well as autonomous valet parking for adapted cars.