Heading to the streets – the year ahead
UK Autodrive Project Director Tim Armitage previews the year ahead, as our connected and autonomous vehicles get ready to move onto UK roads.
Last week’s demonstration of a driverless ‘pod’ carrying passengers on a short journey inside the Milton Keynes shopping centre provided a brief taster of what lies in store for the UK Autodrive programme this year – as we complete the private trials phase of the project and move our vehicles out into the public domain.
The L-SATS (Low-speed Autonomous Transport System) pod that was used for January’s demonstration will be one of a growing fleet of pavement-based vehicles that will be gradually introduced into pedestrianised areas of Milton Keynes during the second half of this year. A total of 40 pods are due to be in operation by the time UK Autodrive reaches maturity in the summer of 2018.
A similar timetable has been agreed for the road-based cars provided by project partners Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors European Technical Centre (TMETC). Following on from last October’s successful demonstration of connected and autonomous vehicle technologies at the HORIBA MIRA Proving Ground, we will be holding a further private track demo at the Nuneaton facility this summer, before starting public road trials in Milton Keynes and Coventry towards the end of the year.
Initially, it is planned that these trials will be conducted on segregated sections of roads before moving onto open roads in 2018 – driving in regular traffic alongside cars driven by the general public, although it is worth emphasising that the self-driving cars will always have a test operator sat at the steering wheel, ready to take back control if required.
Closer to mainstream reality
It will clearly be an exciting year for the project team, and we hope also for the public, as we begin to demonstrate that connected and autonomous vehicles are no longer the preserve of science fiction – but are in fact moving closer and closer to mainstream reality.
How soon we’ll arrive at that reality is perhaps the most common question being asked about driverless cars, but the responses vary greatly depending upon whom you ask. Some argue that the technology will only be viable when autonomous vehicles can operate in all conditions and without any need for humans to take over the driving, while others believe in a more incremental progression in which the vehicles may initially only be capable of autonomous driving in certain environments – for example, when travelling along certain pre-mapped motorways.
The UK Autodrive project is not making any assumptions or predictions about the long-term development of the technology, but it is perhaps worth making the distinction between our autonomous vehicle trials (involving Jaguar Land Rover, TMETC and pod manufacturers RDM) and the connected vehicle trials in which Ford are also taking part. While it’s difficult to be certain how quickly we’ll see fully autonomous vehicles on UK roads, capable of dealing with all scenarios, connected car features seem likely to proliferate in the coming years – potentially bringing significant benefits in terms of traffic information and flow, accident reduction and even environmental improvements, even while us humans remain behind the wheel.
Many of the issues, potential benefits and possible challenges related to the future mass take-up of connected and autonomous vehicles are also being considered within UK Autodrive’s research programmes, which will continue to publish reports during 2017. Ahead of those first city trials, our insurance and legal partners AXA and Gowling WLG will be putting out white papers looking at the issues of liability and possible infrastructure requirements. We’ll also soon be publishing the first set of results from the public attitudes survey work being carried out by Cambridge University – with a view to tracking changes in public attitudes towards this new and potentially society-transforming technology.
Further areas of UK Autodrive research to be completed before the end of the project will include an examination of the business case for the self-driving pod vehicles, related research into how autonomous vehicle technology can be scaled up and a study (using high-powered simulation and visualisation software) of the effect that the eventual mass roll-out of autonomous and connected vehicles might have on congestion and pollution levels.
We know that the coming 12 months will not provide all the answers to these big questions, and we may even end 2017 with a host of new questions, but we are looking forward to a year in which we hope to move ever closer to a connected, autonomous future – with more and more members of the public getting on board.