The government has confirmed the UK’s first trials of autonomous vehicles on public roads will take place around a “high-tech business and science hub” [otherwise known as an industrial estate] in Oxfordshire. Antony Savvas looks at the potential consequences.

Government funded agency Innovate UK has awarded £2.5million (€2.81 million) to trial self-driving vehicles in and around Milton Park (the aforementioned industrial estate) near Didcot in Oxfordshire. The electric “pods” will travel between Milton and nearby Didcot Parkway railway station over a 30-month period.

I’m not too concerned about the safety of these vehicles because, first, they are only travelling short distances, and second, I don’t live in the area. My only slight concern is that the leading partner in the MultiCAV consortium running the trials is FirstGroup. The same transport group that can’t run my expensive local bus service on time – my “number 1” route is surely up for a misnomer award soon.

Commuters

According to reports, commuters to Milton Park will be able to “connect with the self-driving pods from local transport services”, all while “booking and paying for their trip in one easy process”. Let’s hope so, as it is “hoped” that by the end of the trial “up to 50% of private vehicle journeys within Milton will switch to using the shared, electric-powered pods”.

Putting my own scepticism to one side though, it is clear that the public gets excited by such technology, and for business investing in it that’s the most important thing, I suppose.

Last year, data management solutions firm OpenText surveyed 2,000 UK consumers on their attitudes towards driverless cars, and found that 42% saw “improved road safety” as the biggest benefit to driverless/autonomous driving. Over a quarter (27%) thought the ability of driverless/autonomous vehicles to obey all traffic rules will improve road safety.

Drivers

Depending on what sort of driver you think you are, you will interpret the above in different ways – like why do I need a robot to help me drive properly and safely, am I really that bad or too fast (who cares)? Whatever feelings drivers have though seems irrelevant to the majority, as OpenText found that 66% think there will be more driverless/autonomous cars on the road than normal cars within the next 15 years.

Mark Bridger, OpenText vice president of sales for Northern Europe, says we are “on the cusp of self-driving cars becoming a reality”, and that the data that driverless cars’ onboard sensors will generate will become a new “powerful asset”. Bridger says the automotive industry will need to manage and analyse their data sets to identify how the car is performing, and, more importantly, alert drivers to possible safety issues.

The trust in autonomous cars is not just a UK phenomenon either. TUV Rheinland, the international testing service provider, has just published its research on the issue among 1,000 licensed drivers aged 18 years and above in China, Germany and the US (3,000 respondents). But the results were pretty mixed.

Stereotypes

More than 63% of respondents in China believe driverless cars will increase road safety, while the figure is only 34% in the US and Germany. We could go into stereotypes, so we will. Maybe Chinese drivers are used to being told what to do, US drivers don’t like being told what to do, and German drivers don’t want to drive within speed limits.

Mark Bridger

But ignoring the stereotypes, and looking at the results more closely, the confidence that automation will increase road safety goes down with rising levels of automation. Only 11% of the respondents in Germany and 15% in the US state they fear “a deterioration of road safety” due to partial automation, while nearly half of those same respondents believe that road safety will deteriorate with the advent of completely driverless cars. In China, 24% expect road safety to decrease in the case of driverless.

When we see large swaths of motorists in China, Germany and the US share a belief that road safety will decrease as automation increases, says Matthias Schubert, executive vice president of mobility at TUV Rheinland, it tells us “we must give people much more information” and “communicate the benefits of autonomous technology more clearly – politicians and industry executives need to do their homework”, he says.

And if “driverless” is to take off, whatever that really means, no one can argue with him!

The author of this blog is freelance IT writer Antony Savvas

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