Self-driving Urban Vehicles for Public Use

March 2015
Original Source: The Guardian

Image Source: Transport Systems Catapult

Three different self-driving vehicles have started to operate in urban spaces in four British cities in tests intended to evaluate their interaction with people, while also trying out how well these new technologies work. The program is being financed with £19 million ($29.2 million) from the British government.

Salients

  • Three Different Driverless Vehicles - An autonomous Meridian shuttle will be tested in Greenwich, London. Two-seater electric-powered Lutz podcars will be moving around public areas in Milton Keynes and Coventry. Finally, the Wildcat, a modified military jeep developed by the aerospace company BAE, will be trialed in Bristol.

  • A Three Year Test Period - The duration of the trials, between 18 and 36 months, will allow the legal and insurance implications of these autonomous vehicles to be analyzed and assessed. The government foresees having the first fleets of autonomous vehicles available for public transport within two years.

  • Connections with Public Transport - Finding ways of making connections for people between the train or the metro and their homes and workplaces is one of the objectives of the program, with the long-term aim of reducing the number of private vehicles on the streets. At Heathrow airport in London automous vehicles have already been operating since 2011, bringing people from Terminal 5 to the car parks, but this will be the first time driverless vehicles have been used in real traffic situations.

  • A Welcoming Regulatory Environment - The British government has reviewed the existing legal framework for road traffic and has concluded that it is no impediment to doing trials of the autonomous vehicles on public roads. With this in mind, it wishes to encourage British car-makers and technology developers to invest in the autonomous vehicles industry, the market for which is expected to be worth £900 billion ($1.4 trillion) by 2025.

Insights

  • Measures to Give British Industry a Head Start - Understanding, as it does, that driverless vehicles are to be the chief transport innovation of the near future, the United Kingdom wants to position itself as a leader in the technological development of driverless cars. Its immediate strategy is to minimize any barriers there might be to experimentation with the new technology, as a way of speeding up, at every level, the changes there will have to be as the new technologies are progressively implemented. This spring the Ministry of Transport will publish a code of practice which will allow trials of driverless cars. This will permit manufacturers who want to experiment with their prototypes in the United Kingdom to do so outside test tracks or specific geographical areas, without the need for certification or licensing beyond what they have already. It has also announced for the summer of 2017 a complete review of the current legislation in this area. At the moment only four states of the US, along with Germany and Sweden in Europe, have legislated to allow on-road trials of self-driving cars, but in none of these places has this been done in anything like as comprehensive a way as in the United Kingdom.

  • The Future of Mobility in Cities - Reducing accidents, CO2 emissions and traffic congestion are aims shared by all big cities as means of making urban environments more people-friendly. In this transition phase, new technologies and social trends will conjoin to generate significant changes over the next number of years. Public transport will continue to grow, with more efficient and less polluting electric vehicles, while self-charging, self-driving vehicular services will increasingly cover routes between the principal transport hubs. Private vehicles will be less present in urban centres, and there will be more parking spaces for driverless vehicles that are conveniently connected to the public transport system. A new concept along these lines is the V-Charge project, financed by the European Union: an electric, self-recharging, autonomous car which can leave you at the train station, find an empty parking space, park in it, and be ready to collect you on your return from your journey. In society at large, there will be fewer families with more than one car, and so there will be fewer private cars overall in cities, since people will be more inclined to use car-sharing services.

  • Self-driving Taxis: who will be the First to Offer them? - Three companies from very different backgrounds seem to be at the forefront of the race to be the first to put self-driving taxis on the road. One of them, the technology giant Google, already has a prototype under trial. Google, of course, has the most advanced mapping technology at its disposal, even if it has no experience in car-making. Uber, the company in which the same Google invested $258 million in 2013, has considerable know-how in the organization of taxi services and recently started a collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon Institute for the development of self-driving vehicles. It also recently announced its first major takeover, of the DeCarta mapping company. For its part, Nissan, which is already involved in the taxi business, and has also been experimenting from some time back with the technology for driverless cars, announced in January that it is collaborating with NASA in developing, supposedly, a fleet of taxis to be overseen and controlled remotely, according to information to which IEEE Spectrum has had access. The same sources indicate that Nissan could have this system ready to roll within two years.

  • Autonomous Cars for Private Use: a Deployment in Three Phases - All the big car-makers, without exception, are developing prototypes for autonomous vehicles that they are planning to launch on the market over the next number of years. The road map for these car-makers will follow, in all probability, the phases that Nissan and Renault have just announced at the Geneva motor show. In the first phase, in 2016, both manufacturers will put on sale cars with the Traffic Jam Automous Drive technology, which allows the vehicle to advance in single file in traffic jam situations. In 2018, with the Highway Automous Drive technology, the vehicles will be able to move in single file on highways, at high speed, and will be able to change lane by themselves, if their drivers have them configured to do so. Lastly, in 2020, autonomous traffic will reach urban environments, with the City Autonomous Drive technology. In all these cases we are talking about autonomous vehicles in which the human driver will continue to be able to take over the driving from the cars, if he or she wishes, while the vehicles themselves will become increasingly endowed with sensors and other assisted driving features which will enhance their autonomous driving capabilities.

  • A License to Operate a Self-driving Car - According to a report from the Boston Consulting Group, some 44% of drivers in the United States think it probable, or very probable, that they will buy a self-driving car in the next ten years. To these prospective buyers of such vehicles should be added people who do not drive at the moment, because they can’t, or don’t wish to, and who will find driverless cars a handy way of getting about. The state of California is drawing up new regulations for the operation of driverless cars by the general public, which will include the requirement for a certain amount of preliminary training or assessment for users. For the moment the certification programs for operators of driverless cars vary according to exigencies of the different manufacturers: from five weeks in the case of the Googlecar to half a day for the Tesla, Bosch or Mercedes-Benz models. With different autonomous driving features for the different brands of vehicles, which can come built in or as extras, it is to be expected that the design of a generic regulation system which takes into account all the factors which might influence the actions of the person being driven and his or her part in that driving, will be complex, to say the least. This will not be so in the case of self-driving vehicles with no steeering wheel, like Google’s prototype, where the operation of the car will have to be extremely simple, and reliable.