When will we see driverless cars on British roads?

We have all seen the rapid rise of new technologies that are disrupting the way we live our everyday lives. From our mobile devices, e-commerce retailing, sharing economy companies and a plethora of automated functionalities – innovation has changed our lives beyond recognition.

It is through this relentless drive of technological innovation that has revolutionised the automotive sector.

Despite the ongoing controversies around diesel and petrol cars, and the gradual implementation of electric vehicles, one of the more sci-fi adaptations that will be arriving on our roads in the near future is autonomous vehicles.

But when will this happen? Who are the companies leading the way? Where does Britain fit in the global marketplace? Business Leader investigates.

What is the current state of the industry?

An autonomous vehicle (AV) is the definition given to an automobile that is capable of driving safely with little or no human interaction. Whether it is using radar, lidar or cameras, various technologies make the vehicle ‘aware’ of its surroundings and allow it to negotiate roads legally and without danger to those in the vehicle or pedestrians.

There is a universal ranking system for the current state of the autonomous ranking. From Level Zero – where the driver completes all the driving tasks without any autonomous features – to Level Five, where we are in a world of complete vehicular automation.

However, despite the once eternal optimism around a near futuristic world where autonomous vehicles are commonplace – in recent years it has become apparent that there are many hurdles the tech and automotive sectors will have to overcome before Level Five becomes a reality.

Aurrigo, is a Midlands-based firm that is developing the next generation of self-driving transport vehicles for people using transport hubs.

Miles Garner, Sales and Marketing Director, comments: “The big car manufacturers are reining in their autonomous vehicle launch predictions after realising how difficult it is to integrate AVs into the real world.

“At Aurrigo, we have focused on developing first and last mile transport solutions at low speed and in controlled environments – this is gaining traction as the OEMs are beginning to understand they need to ‘walk before they run’.”

It is this gradual development, innovation and implementation of the stages of automation that will make this industry safe and successful.

However, other factors are playing a part in the cautious approach to the autonomous car market, despite the increased interest and funding.

Francesca Lavey, who heads up the mobility programme at Plexal, an innovative co-working space in East London, said: “AV technology is fast becoming a reality in the UK. Due to the advancements in IoT and AI, the industry has recently seen a surge in profits and demand. As research continues in the UK, companies are starting to test these vehicles on our roads, but more often than not, these tests involve a person in the car who can override the system if necessary.

“There are some barriers to AV being a real mobility option for the public, such as 5G infrastructure, legislation and regulation. And you can’t underestimate the importance of public acceptance of the technology either. Ultimately, without people understanding, trusting and accepting AV, we won’t see mass adoption – however well-developed the technology becomes.”

What does the future hold for autonomous vehicles?

Clearly the AV market is still in its infancy, and there are a lot of challenges to overcome. This gives the perfect platform for leading manufacturers and companies to stamp their authority on the direction of the industry.

However, many teething problems will need to be negotiated first. Graham Parkhurst, Professor of Sustainable Mobility at the University of the West of England (UWE), said: “There has been a growing maturity about where we are with the technology. There is a growing realisation that the industry will be an evolution, rather than expecting the finished driverless vehicles in the immediate future. There are still a number of problems that need to be solved for that to become the reality.

“Whilst the technology is very clever, and good at dealing with predictable situations, it is going to be a long time before we genuinely do see autonomous vehicles, rather than automated vehicles which still need human interaction on the roads. There are still some basic scenarios that are difficult to deal with at the moment. “For example, looking at a roundabout and deciding if the gap is big enough – that is a human decision and a challenging task for an autonomous vehicle. Humans can do this easily, whereas AI systems require human intervention at that point.”

Parkhurst continues: “We are a long way off complete automation of a vehicle. If you look at a typical city, with the levels of complexities and unpredictability that they have, as well as sharing the roads with various different types of users in a congested environment – there is still so much that needs to be resolved. The level of technological complexities is staggering and the levels of non-verbal communication that is needed between all aspects of a road and city need to be 100% safe. A lot of driving culture is dependent on the person driving the car, and so having a machine take over, will change the way in which our roads are used and the way they are driven on. Typical projects may last three to five years, and the develop the tech incrementally. How many project cycles to get to a fully automated car? We are a long way off yet.”

Challenges with automation

The biggest concern within the industry, however, has been the same since the tech’s infancy – safety.

Lavey comments: “The biggest concern we have with AVs is safety – the technology simply isn’t able to work with the variety of situations that cars are put in, from extreme weather to unexpected events involving pedestrians and cyclists.

“What we’re most likely to see much sooner is AV used for short passenger journeys or simple deliveries in non-passenger vehicles. Take for example, the driverless pods that will ferry passengers across the Tokyo Olympic sites in 2020, or the long-haul lorry deliveries which have been rolled out in the United States.

“The Olympics have provided an opportunity to test innovations in a safe environment – Tokyo has been developing self-driving pods which will be used in the 2020 Olympics and developments are already being put in place for a self-driving taxi service for the 2024 Paris Olympics.”

However, the challenges are not just limited to safety. Lavey continues: “Other than the more obvious problem of passenger and pedestrian safety, as our lives become more dependent on Internet of Things (IoT) technology through AV we are more prone to cybersecurity breaches that can damage levels of trust in mobility technology. That’s why as the AV industry continues to grow, it must support and work alongside other industries such as cybersecurity.”

Which businesses are leading the industry?

In order to ascend the levels of automation within the industry, there will need to be pioneering innovations and companies leading the way. Just as many industries before them, this is where the level of disruption could change the pecking order of the whole automotive sector.

For example, at CES 2020, the world’s largest tech and innovation event, Sony shockingly revealed that it is producing a driverless car.

This shows the level of interest outside the traditional manufacturers and the potential income if a company can become the new market leader.

Only time will tell if Sony’s introduction will change the industry, but in the meantime, many other businesses are driving change for different aspects of the driverless technology.

Parkhurst comments: “Most leading manufacturers are invested in automation and the future of the industry. Volvo has been involved for some time and has had a series of international trials. We are also seeing Ford take an increased interest in the market, and working in the UK on a project called Endeavor to help advance the autonomous car.

“Jaguar Land Rover has had a large interest in various projects across the UK. And of course, Tesla was early market leaders and went straight to electric – and that itself has been an impressive development.”

With regards to Volvo, the firm recently announced a partnership with global ride-sharing platform to jointly develop a production vehicle capable of self-driving – an introduction to the market that will change the transport industry.

When paired with Volvo’s vehicle platform, Uber’s self-driving system may one day allow for safe, reliable autonomous ridesharing without a driver operating and overseeing the car in areas designated and suitable for autonomous drive.

Where does Britain stand in the world of autonomous vehicles?

With leading car manufacturers and tech firms taking the lead on the next generation of autonomous vehicles, it does show which countries are more open to a driverless future. However, it will be a global political, society and technical effort to make autonomous vehicles commonplace on roads across the world.

Dr Zhengguo Sheng, Senior Lecturer in Advanced Networks and Communications at the University of Sussex comments: “It’s very difficult to say which country is leading the autonomous car development. Technology-wise, it’s more like a global effort to develop technology and standard in this domain. You may see an autonomous car equipped with Lidar from US, camera from Japan and Telemetry from the EU.

“This has led to certain nations leading the way in research and development on new innovations. This is where the UK is falling behind its global counterparts.”

Lavey comments: “Both the US and China are further ahead in their AV developments compared to the UK, but this is not due to a lack of talent available here. The UK is a world leader in tech, but unfortunately, we see scaling companies being held back by a lack of large-scale investment in AV tech compared to our global counterparts.

“As well as investment, the UK has more challenging infrastructure for driverless cars to navigate. While the US and China have large open roads and testing sites, the UK has smaller winding streets to navigate.”