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Driverless technology: Coming to a road near you

It’s official. Driverless cars will be tested on Britain’s motorways from next year. George Osborne wants to see the country “lead the world in new technologies and infrastructure”.

The Chancellor has previously stated “driverless cars could represent the most fundamental change to transport since the invention of the internal combustion engine”. These measures are expected to position the UK as one of pioneers of the driverless vehicle market. The Government estimates this to be worth £900 billion by 2025.

The announcement comes weeks after authorities set out plans for eight driverless car projects. In Coventry, 40 miles of roads are to be fitted with “talking car” technology. Transmitters will deliver information about hazards, accidents ahead, and surroundings.

This innovation is financed by a £100 million Intelligent Mobility Fund, set up by the Government. Seven other collaborative projects have also received funding. These include setting up a team to develop driverless transport for visually impaired people and people with disabilities. Another project involves creating autonomous driving systems, making them ready for market. And one funding recipient is developing hardware for analysing data in real-time, aiding the smart cities concept.

“Britain is a world-leader in research and development in such innovative technologies which improve lives and create opportunity for all,” says Sajid Javid, British Government’s Business Secretary. “That is why this government has protected the £6 billion science budget and is providing up to £20 million for these projects.”

Coming soon

Fast forward to this year, July 2016 to be precise, driverless “pods” will be hitting London. Already in use at Heathrow Airport, the electric vehicles will be converted to run on the tarmac around Greenwich Peninsula.

Initial usage will be limited to residential areas around the nearby O2 Arena. Assuming a three-month pilot is successful, the pods will be rolled out the general public. There will be five seats available for use. A sixth will be taken up by a steward, responsible for hitting the emergency button if there’s a problem.

In Milton Keynes, two-seater versions have already proved a success. Reaching speeds of up to 25kph, they’ve been self-driving around the city centre. Equipped with sensors, camera and radar, the pods measure distance using a laser, which processes the reflected light.

Beyond cars

The examples above are currently limited to designated areas. However, in the Netherlands, a driverless shuttle bus is joining traffic on regular roads. The WEpod can carry passengers, who can book journeys via an app, up to 100km on a single charge.

Back in the UK, the Government’s Department for Transport has set out plans for testing autonomous lorries. Up to nine self-driving HGVs will form a convoy, led by a driver. Tests will be conducted on yet-to-be-confirmed stretches of motorway.

Beyond roads

What other ways will the industry be headed? How about out to sea? Rolls-Royce is working on “ship intelligence”, which incorporates driverless technology into the maritime industry. Automatic sensors, predictive maintenance tools, smart controls. Many of the capabilities of driverless cars can be applied to sea-farers.

“Today there is a lot of R&D focus on unmanned airplanes and driverless land-based vehicles and society is becoming more prepared to accept these game-changing solutions. It is only a question of time as to when shipping will follow the same path,” explains Oskar Levander, VP, Innovation, Engineering and Technology.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go before driverless technology becomes the norm. Many consumers will have reservations about removing the human element to driving. In February, a Google self-driving car (travelling at 2mph) crashed into a bus (15mph). A Google’s statement said: “We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision.”

But here’s the thing with driverless cars: there’s safety in numbers. In over 1.8 million miles of testing, Google cars have been involved in 13 accidents. All were the fault of the other vehicle. And none resulted in a fatality. In 2013, 1.25 million people died on the world’s roads.

By 2020, we the question may be: should we allow drivers to operate cars, when we have access to driverless technology?

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