What is the UK driverless car trial all about?

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Currently ongoing in the UK are some of the world’s first and biggest driverless car trials. Google might have been running its automated cars up and down some straight, mostly empty roads for some years already, but on British streets and pavements today, you can find as many as three different kinds of automated cars being tested. Designed to test all aspects of how the industry may change when these sorts of cars are brought to the real world en masse, these trials will give us much needed feedback on any sorts of changes that might need to be made to accommodate them on British roads physically and in terms of their legality.

So that’s what I’d like to go over a bit here in this piece, looking at how the different driving schemes in the UK and what they hope to achieve, as well as what they might discover as part of it.

Greenwhich

Greenwhich, a district of South London, will be hosting the Gateway driverless car trial. Having received £8 million of project funding from industry heads and the innovate UK fund, it has plenty of capital to work with and will bring in different companies and universities to help work on the idea of running automated vehicles within the UK’s largest and busiest of cities.

The project is technologically agnostic, so will not be driven by any one developer or with any particular driverless outcome in mind. What it will focus on though is furthering research into the broad technology ‘driving’ automated vehicles forward, with the idea to gain knowledge about how it will affect all aspects of industry, government and the public.

meridianshuttle

There are several major aims of the project, which leaders have outlined quite specifically:

  • Demonstrate that a driverless vehicle fleet can fit in well into a modern city environment and that it can gel with real world drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and all the other forms of traffic that happen throughout cities like London every single day.
  • Take on board some of the cultural and societal challenges that might be faced by implementing such a system and look at possible solutions for those concerns. It will also investigate whether some of the problems may be fixed by introducing people first hand to the technology, thereby assuaging any fears they have about its operation.
  • Inspire industry leaders, local government bodies and public interest groups, to get behind driverless technology and see all of the benefits it could bring to local communities. It’s hoped that by introducing different people to the latest in piloted vehicle developments, that all sorts of groups can look into introducing small scale trials of their own and potentially opening the door to the industry as a whole, as the benefits snowball as public interest and awareness grows.
  • Take on board which systems will need to be modernised in order to make them applicable to a modern, automated driving environment. This could involve the revamping of things like level crossings, traffic lights and even street lamps, all of which may need tweaking to make them more applicable to smart, connected cars.
  • Create a platform for ongoing testing, that could see future technologies integrated over the next few years, as vehicle automation becomes more nuanced and complex. This will also allow for the creation of new, driverless transport standards, like buses and taxis, which could be trialled specifically in Greenwhich before being rolled out elsewhere in London and the rest of the country as a whole.
  • Position the UK as the leading country when it comes to automated vehicle research and make it a hotbed for development, encouraging investment from overseas and from national British firms which may stand to benefit and capitalise on the ongoing connected car trend.

Bristol

Over in the West Country, the driverless car trial is being handled by the Venturer consortium, a group that’s made up of the likes of Atkins, Bristol City Council, South Gloucestershire council, AXA, Williams Advanced Engineering, Fusion Processing, the Centre for Transport and Society, university of the West of England, University of Bristol and the Bristol Robotics lab. Its goal will be to look at different aspects of driverless car usage, beyond the technological and physical outcomes of the trial. It will focus on investigating the legal and insurance aspects of such a technological advancement and look into how the public view such vehicles.

wildcat

Unlike other regions though, where they will be using the likes of the Lutz pod car, or the Meridian automated shuttle, in Bristol they will have the most car-like vehicle of them all: a heavily modified Bowler Wildcat, a 4×4 that’s based on the Land Rover discovery. While the other automated vehicles might be designed to look like finished products, ready for customers to use if they wanted to buy one tomorrow (though of course, they can’t) this vehicle is much more obviously designed with testing in mind. It has sensors littered all over it, including a roof mounted Velodyne LIDAR laser, which operates in 360 degrees to give the vehicle a real all round view of where it is and what’s around it at all times.

There’s also a 360 degree camera mounted on the bonnet of the car, to give the vehicle an even better idea of what’s going on and to give the researchers some footage to look at when going over what the vehicle achieved. These aren’t the final placements of the hardware, but deciding on the best place for the different sensors and detectors to go is part of the what the test will be covering. Specifically, the researchers will look at how weather can affect the Wildcat’s performance, as rain and fog have proved problematic for sensors like LIDAR in the past.

As well as studying how the hardware performs and some of the social impacts of such a piece of technology, the developers are also looking to figure out how best to handle interaction between human drivers and automated cars. As it stands, many drivers utilise far more than their car to iterate what they want to do. They might wave, or flash their lights at someone to signal that they are happy to let the other person go, or beep their horn in frustration. These are commands or warnings that human drivers understand intrinsically, but it’s something that if automated vehicles don’t get early on, could leave them in hot water when it comes to real world driving.

The trial is expected to last for around three years, with the Venturer Consortium keeping track of public opinion of driverles vehicles throughout, to see if the increased exposure to the automated technology allows them to feel more comfortable with its presence.

Coventry and Milton Keynes

Unlike the other two major cities taking part in the British driverless car trials, Coventry and Milton Keynes are running a joint project together, with “UK Autodrive,” handling its development and ongoing management. The consortium will be headed by engineering firm Arup, but it will also make use of expertise from many local authorities, technology leaders and universities (including both Oxford and Cambridge) to bring in as many forward thinkers as possible to make the scheme a success.

Again, it will make use of different automated vehicles than both Bristol’s and Greenwhich’s schemes, utilising one of the more advanced driverless vehicles available today: the (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone) pod car. The self-piloted vehicle comes with two seats for passengers and can travel up to 15 miles per hour and can go for up to 40 miles before requiring a charge. While there will be some on-road testing, much of what will take place will happen off-road, with specific sections of the cities given over to trialling the automated vehicle’s functions.

During its usage, the little pod’s sensory equipment will be hooked up to a Macbook pro located in the back of the car, which will help map out the 3D environments that the vehicle moves around in over the next few years. This way, it should gradually improve its traversal of the surrounding areas and could even aid in navigation if it loses a GPS signal for example. Some engineers have suggested that the challenge of pavement may be one that’s even greater than road-trials, since there are far more unpredictable elements, like animals, children and lots more pedestrians to avoid.

During the trial, expected to last for up to three years, members of the public will be invited to take small journeys throughout the town to see how well the vehicles perform, though there will be a driver with them at all times until the function of the vehicles have been confirmed. Within two years time, the researchers hope to have as many as 100 fully automated ones operating within the UK, so it may not be long before we see fleets of Lutz vehicles driving around all by themselves – passengers in tow.

However, beginning this week, just three of the Lutz Pathfinder pods will be let loose on Milton Keynes streets, in order to gauge public opinion, as well as look into other aspects of the vehicles’ usage that might need to be addressed, such as the legal and insurance ramifications – much like the other trials. The reason for that, is that researchers involved in the Coventry and Milton Keynes trials have pledged support for the others, stating that they would look forward to sharing information about any developments they make during the tests.

So how have they been going so far? 

So far so good. A few government ministers have trialled the vehicles themselves and it’s left them with a solid impression of the technology. There’s also been some early polls taken of public opinion of the different vehicles and people seem to be coming around a little to the idea already; though there is still a long way to go. For starters, the technology powering the vehicles’ movement needs improving a lot to cater for different conditions and companion technologies like battery life will also need to be bettered over the next few years in order to increase the range and reliability of the different cars in question – though not all of them currently use electric motors.

Similarly so though, the legislation that allows these sorts of vehicles to be used on British roads needs a lot of debate and discussion, the evidence for which will no doubt be provided by these ongoing trials. According to early estimates, we can expect some of the first motorway and traffic-jam only automated cars to arrive some time in mid-2017, which is around the time that politicians believe that will have hashed out a good legal framework for what happens in situations: ie. who’s responsible in the case of a car crash.

It’s not clear from early discussions what the outcome of those ongoing debates will be, but it may well be that manufacturers end up taking some of the blame. In the mean time though, we have our fingers crossed that all goes well during the car trials and hope to take a trip to try some out for ourselves. If you happen to have the chance to ride in any of the automated vehicles discussed here, do let us know what you thought.

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.