What is the vision for self driving cars?

Autonomous privately owned vehicles, or self-driving public transport pods, or both? The vision or the aims have not been defined, writes Jon Masters

“Thousands of driverless cars will be driving on our streets in years to come”, according to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. For this to happen within the next few years, every other vehicle, cyclist and pedestrian would have to be cleared off those same streets, which clearly is not going to happen.

The safe interaction between self-driving cars and other road users is just one of many questionable elements of connected and autonomous vehicles.

The fact that the UK government is pumping money into their development was given a whole section of Chancellor George Osborne’s March Budget. Since then a lot of coverage has been given over to the possibilities, but what seems to be missing is an assessment of what’s realistic. How it's all going to look, how it's going to work and what the real aims are, have not been defined.

Over the next few weeks we’ll have industry experts explaining what it’s all about. We’re asking them to break through the jargon as well. What are connected and autonomous vehicles – CAVs as some have described them?

Are we talking about self-driving privately owned vehicles, or driverless ‘pods’ providing a new form of public transport on set routes, as per Heathrow’s fleet of pods shuttling between the airport’s terminals and car parks?

If it’s the latter, how will that work in city centres? Who’s going to pay for it and will anybody really want to use it? Didn’t Daventry propose just such a system as recently as 2011, only to find residents thought it a waste of money? 

Or, if we’re talking about the former, which vehicle manufacturers will develop, how can autonomous vehicles be introduced gradually and safely? Practically, it seems unlikely that self driving cars will be able to display the human characteristics necessary for urban driving. Staying within a lane or a set distance to the vehicle in front can be envisaged – driver aids are going that far already – but a driverless car will have to work everywhere.

At least one manufacturer has admitted that fully autonomous vehicles are not going to enter full production, explaining that the prototypes are being developed to help inform the more advanced driver assistance technology that is reaching forecourts – lane assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic parking.

Google has attracted a lot of attention to its autonomous vehicle programme in the US, but technology industry commentators, pondering why Google is doing this, point to the company’s strategy as being akin to throwing everything against a wall to see what sticks. The Google glasses and watches have not caught on so far. The jury’s out on the self driving cars as well.

The aim here is not to be overtly negative about the chances of autonomous vehicles making it onto Britain’s streets. The reality is that the technologies of both driverless public transport pods and self driving cars are being developed and funding is being provided by government to give the UK a leading position, for whatever uses the technology ends up having.

Self-driving cars capture the imagination, but there are important questions to be answered. What are the real objectives and is enough funding going to the right places?

If the aims are greater safety and less traffic congestion, then the ‘connected vehicle’ part of the overall story is not getting enough attention, not in the UK anyway.

Connected vehicle (CV) developments is a subject in its own right and for the sake of less confusion it ought to be talked about separately, but it involves new technology so is getting lumped into the same discussion, in Highways England’s innovation strategy at least.

Self-driving pods would no doubt be connected via radio or wifi to a central control room, but already any vehicle carrying a mobile phone – pinging regular location signals so they can be picked up by the nearest mast – is connected, providing traffic data for highway authorities to use. 

More advanced uses of CV technology are being developed, particularly so in the United States where a federal programme is working with three full scale pilot projects – in New York, Wyoming and Florida, where communication between vehicles and infrastructure will be tested, primarily for improving safety and traffic flow. In New York, for example, city authority vehicles will receive dashboard alert messages if they’re in danger of jumping a red light, or a pedestrian is in the road, or a vehicle in front is turning across them.

The US government’s Department for Transportation is very hands-on in the overall initiative, helping to fund the pilots with $42m over four years and guiding each project team closely through the process of setting up vital safety operations concepts and security system plans. 

Connected vehicle technology is the less sexy part of this subject of technological development, but it’s probably the bit most likely to happen first. The UK may lag behind. While the US has set a mandate for all new vehicles to have CV capability from 2019, government here is hands-off, funding a number of different autonomous vehicle research projects, but with no plan for where it’s all heading.

However, some experts are adamant that all of it is going to become reality. So it’s over to them to tell us how it’s going to work; and how the hurdles will be overcome.