Focus on: Driverless Cars

Driverless Cars: The age of the driverless car…?

The government wants the UK to become a world leader in driverless technology and will start trials this year in Greenwich, Bristol, Coventry and Milton Keynes.  But will they achieve their aims of having safer roads, less-congestion, and a driverless future?

The initial perception of the driverless car is a cautious one.  Research undertaken by Virgin last year suggested that 43% of the British public wouldn’t feel comfortable with the presence of driverless cars on the roads.  A quarter of those surveyed said that they would not get inside such a car.

However, we can see that some of the autonomous technology already exists and is being used safely today.  For example, the VW Polo’s automatic braking or the Ford Focus automatic parallel parking use proximity sensors to prevent collision.  Combine this with automated-steering used for parking, automated speed control used in predictive cruise control, satellite navigation and you can begin to see the loose frameworks for a driverless car.

There are 3 prototypes to be used in the trial with very specific purposes.  The most reported one is the LUTZ Pathfinder manufactured by Transport Systems Catapault which is immediately identifiable by its patriotic design and will operate in Milton Keynes.   The Wildcat by BAe Systems will run in Bristol.  Both of these will host the Venturer Consortium, which aims to investigate whether driverless cars can reduce congestion and make roads safer. Much of its focus will be on the public’s reaction to the technology as well as the legal and insurance implications of its introduction.

Car clinic - driverless cars - Meridian ShuttleThe Meridian Shuttle which looks like an elongated golf buggy will operate in Greenwich.  Greenwich is set to run the Gateway Scheme which plans to carry out tests of automated passenger shuttle vehicles as well as autonomous valet parking for adapted cars

They all remain in the trial stage with technical difficulties being highlighted before more are launched.  These tests that will assess the public’s interaction with the vehicles as much as the evolving technology.

For now, they retain the steering wheel and a qualified test driver to supervise the vehicle which will travel at a maximum of 12mph.  In Milton Keynes the pods will be operating from the train station to the shopping centre.  It will be a tough environment for the vehicles to travel along, as they will be on the pavement where pedestrians can be less than predictable.  They have already highlighted that the sensors are more limited in snow and foggy conditions.

The Pathfinder is a two-seater, electric-powered vehicle that is packed with 19 sensors, cameras, radar and Lidar – a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analysing the reflected light.driverless cars

Secured in a panel behind the seat is the computing power equivalent to two high-end gaming computers.  These vehicles will be able to talk to each other as well as being connected to a smartphone app to allow people to hail them.

With all of the vehicles safety is paramount.  One of the government’s aims is to reduce death on our roads.  With an expected 90% of all road deaths thought to be human error, this has got to be good.

Local councils are always looking for ways to cut costs Milton Keynes Council have indicated that with the reduction in the number of busses running, this would provide a sensible cheaper alternative.

However, whilst cutting costs and reducing accidents, there is a clear political agenda to be world leaders in this technology.

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.”

Indeed, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable supported this, “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.  The projects we are now funding in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry will help to ensure we are world leaders in this field and able to benefit from what is expected to be a £900 billion industry by 2025.”

If we have the knowledge and expertise, then perhaps this does provide a platform for us to lead the way and create a number of jobs in the UK to support the economy, and improve safety as well.

With a mission as strong as this, it looks certain that we can expect to see autonomous cars on our roads in the future.

To support this change, the government have promised a full review of current legislation by the summer of 2017 to accommodate road regulations and car maintenance checks necessary to accommodate driverless cars on the roads of the UK.  This will involve rewriting the Highway Code, adjustments to MOT test guidelines and investigate if a higher standard should be demanded of automated vehicles.  They will also look at who would be responsible in the event of a collision and how you ensure the safety of drivers and pedestrians.

But the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) warn that it was concerned that, while the government is pushing ahead with making driverless cars a reality, the service and repair sector did not yet have the skills and infrastructure in place to deal with the new technology.  IMI chief executive, Steve Nash, is calling on businesses to take steps to address this sooner rather than later.  “We believe the government is yet to fully [realise] the pressures we are under,” he said.

If nothing else, we will all be watching to see how these vehicles progress.  Afterall, 10 years ago we wouldn’t have dreamt of using our phones to take photos, and now it is common place.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” 
Henry Ford

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