More must be done for vehicle technology, says Alan Stevens

Alan Stevens

Last word on autonomous vehicles (for now) goes to Alan Stevens, chief transportation scientist at TRL

While much research and validation is required before we see full implementation of highly and fully automated vehicles, it’s no longer a question of 'if', but 'when' these vehicles will be introduced to our roads. 

Over the past two years we’ve seen significant steps by the government to position the UK at the forefront of development in this area. Significant investment has been made not only in projects to understand the viability of automated technology, but also to explore the infrastructure requirements to support the next generations of vehicles. But are we moving in the right direction and should the private sector be leading the way more?

What’s happening already?

One of the UK government’s stated aims is to “incentivise the advancement of in-vehicle, vehicle-to-vehicle, and vehicle-to infrastructure technologies, through the provision of roadside wifi”. As a result, TRL has been working with the Department for Transport, Highways England, Transport for London and Kent County Council to establish a connected corridor on the A2/M2 between London and Kent. 

As announced in Highways England’s Innovation Strategy, on-road technology will wirelessly transmit information directly to vehicles and a range of potential services are being explored. The technology also allows vehicles to provide information to roadside beacons which can then be used to measure travel times and identify congestion. This could also reduce the requirement for information displayed on dynamic road signs. For example, the precise nature of a hazard, its likely impact and any suggested diversion routes could be sent directly to in-vehicle information systems or portable devices, and eventually to an automated vehicle’s guidance systems. With suitable human factors research, this could also enable more flexible and more innovative traffic management with vehicles relayed traffic signal timing information in order to calculate an optimal speed to approach the next traffic light.

It’s not just the government that’s enabling vehicle automation; we’re already seeing vehicle manufacturers increasingly automating road vehicles by adding driver aids such as adaptive speed control, automatic braking and lane control – reducing the workload of the driver. At the same time, fully automated vehicles are also being developed for use in segregated environments. For example, the pods of the £8m GATEway project in Greenwich, led by TRL. So with manufacturers focused on the vehicle technology and government addressing societal and legal issues, what can, and should, road infrastructure operators be doing? 

What needs to happen now?

The remaining questions are not so much about the technical performance or safety of automated vehicles, but what steps need to be taken by which stakeholders for CAVs to integrate, or at least, harmoniously co-exist, with existing traffic and road users. There are some big issues around societal acceptance and how the introduction of CAVs will change insurance, ownership and inclusivity, but putting these aside, there are many practical issues for road authorities and operators to address. 

Connected and automated vehicles offer many potential benefits, including safety and reduced operational costs, but to harvest these benefits, road operators need to adapt and invest. This is already happening to an extent in places such as Greenwich, Milton Keynes and Newcastle, as well as some interurban corridors.  

A basic need is communication, whether this is through good cellular coverage or roadside beacons for short-range data messages. Also, in terms of physical infrastructure, just ensuring that signing and lining is up to scratch can make a great deal of difference to an automated vehicle’s lane following performance. 

Moving forward

The UK trials and funding for other studies will help to provide demonstrators and a measure of confidence-building for the public and industry alike. However, one thing that is still missing is clear business cases and an agreed roadmap of how these vehicles will be introduced into our existing road environment. In part this is down to the fact that road authorities argue that the way forward is uncertain, they lack funding, and they have many other pressing priorities. So if that’s the case, then should the automotive industry lead the way? 

Technical standards are important, of course, both to promote interoperability between vehicles and to reduce costs. The European approach is to foster cooperation and agreement over deployment of CAVs between manufacturers, contrasting with the US mandate for vehicle connectivity in order to capture the proven safety benefits of CAVs more quickly. The US certainly appear to be in the lead in terms of connected vehicles, but it’s a global industry so we all may benefit from what’s happening in the US.  

While the potential opportunities from CAVs and intelligent transport systems are huge, the speed at which vehicle automation develops will be dependent upon a number of different societal, legal and technological factors. Full-scale deployment of CAVs needs concerted effort from many stakeholders and that tends to make progress difficult. In such circumstances strong government leadership is often beneficial, but going faster increases risks as, ultimately, society has to be comfortable with the pace and direction of change.