Sunday 21st July 2019

Anticipating autonomous: the UK’s driverless future

Published on January 28th, 2019

Iwan Parry, market development lead, TRL, outlines findings from new research by the Smart Mobility Living Lab: London (SMLL) that sought to understand business leaders’ perceptions about autonomous vehicles.

Clearly with autonomous vehicles the question is not if, but when – the British Department for Transport is aiming for the first deployments of connected autonomous vehicles in the UK by 2021.

SMLL’s research found that decision makers from across the transport, technology and automotive industries generally agreed that connected autonomous vehicles will play a crucial role in the future of the UK’s society and economy, as well as those of many other countries.

Almost two-thirds (65%) are confident that driverless cars will be available on the country’s roads in the next five years. This is a considerable vote of confidence in the vehicles progressing from formative stages to being commercially viable methods of moving people and goods, which are attractive to the public as a whole.

Industry leaders are also clear that the vehicles will bring big benefits, with safety at the top of the list. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents believe connected autonomous vehicles will make roads safer.

Benefits beyond safety

Almost half (49%) agreed that the vehicles will enable elderly and disabled people to be more mobile, and inclusive mobility is one of the key aims of driverless vehicle services in urban areas. The latest ONS projections show that in 50 years’ time there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over, so such autonomous services would be a welcome development.

There are commercial opportunities too, with 62% of respondents agreeing that autonomous vehicles will have a positive impact on GDP, for reasons that include reviving high streets and creating a new ‘passenger economy’.

These findings support the notion of autonomous vehicles becoming reality in five years’ time. What’s next?

In the formative years

Off- and on-road testing are essential and will be enabled by special approvals, regulatory development and operational licencing in some areas. These stages are essential to the deployment of connected autonomous vehicles as well as allowing private autonomous vehicles and commercially viable services.

One of the more surprising results to emerge from this study was the split in attitudes towards testing. Almost two-thirds (68%) of respondents think the vehicles must undergo rigorous real-world testing before they can be used on public roads, but a third don’t see this as a fundamental process. In addition, 45% think live testing environments – which involve interaction between connected autonomous vehicles and vehicles driven by people, as well as pedestrians – are important too, but more than half are not convinced.

Real-world testing is essential, but we do not expect vehicles to travel thousands of miles before they are approved. We need to validate virtual forms of testing with real-world test data to speed up this important process without compromising accuracy.

Most respondents (84%) agree that the UK needs its own national testing facilities, supporting the view that automated vehicles should be tested in local conditions before gaining approval to operate in legally, culturally and geographically distinct regions. This is different from the norm today as most consumers are happy to drive vehicles not necessarily tested in their home country.

This suggests that overwhelmingly people feel that local roads, road rules, road users and driving environments are distinct enough to require specific testing and evaluation regimes.

To this end, city-based, inter-urban and rural testing facilities will be used to introduce connected autonomous vehicles technologies. This testing will also reassure industry stakeholders and consumers about the vehicles’ safety and reliability, as well as their ability to navigate and deliver services in challenging road environments.

Action for standards and regulation

Iwan Parry

We agree with the 70% of respondents who are confident that connected autonomous vehicles can be successfully regulated and supported by the development of standards which ensure best practice in systems development, testing and operations. Ensuring these frameworks foster ongoing innovation in nascent technologies is a big challenge.

Collaboration in the development of real-world testing provides important insight for regulators, manufacturers and technology developers alike. Such collaboration reassures governments and regulators on two scores.

Firstly, that the rules they put in place to test autonomous vehicles and services do everything to support growth and foster innovation. Secondly that while protecting consumers, the rules provide new choices and ensure that road networks operate safety and efficiently.

Next steps

The next steps are already in motion. SMLL – a co-innovation project led by TRL and a consortium including Cisco, TfL, DG Cities, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Cubic, and Loughborough University – has is to develop solutions.

The project brings together technology, public infrastructure and transport experts to build a testbed, located across the Royal [London] Borough of Greenwich and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, to offer a complex urban setting for testing, developing, evaluating and approving future transport technologies, services and business models.

The author of this blog is Iwan Parry, market development lead, TRL

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