Self-driving cars might still seem the thing of science fiction for many, but the field is quickly advancing and new government initiatives mean that streets in the UK could soon be graced by these autonomous automobiles. In this feature we look at how the story has unfolded so far, and what the future holds for driverless cars. See also: Driverless cars should get more reliable with Nvidia's Tegra X1
Update 19 May: Google has patented a new sticky technology that is applied to the front of its driverless vehicles to prevent further potential danger in the event that a pedestrian and car collide. (And to collect bugs.) Read more.
Driverless cars in the UK: Google and the self-driving car
It’s fair to say that the majority of research in this area has been conducted in the US, with Google leading the field. The internet giant’s Self-Driving Car Project has clocked up well over a million miles, with a fleet of modified Lexus SUVs and bespoke prototype vehicles traversing the tarmac of certain streets in California, Texas, and Washington.
As of yet, these remain limited test areas, and it will still be a few years before you’ll be able to walk into a dealership and order your own robotic chauffeur. So far safety records have been mostly excellent - a Google driverless car hit a bus in California in February and, while there were no casualties and this was the first time a driverless car had caused a smash, it isn't the first reported incident.
In mid-May 2016 it was reported that Google had patented a new sticky layer that will cover the surface of the front of the driverless car. Rather than catching bugs, this sticky substance is designed to catch pedestrians - but only when the car and pedestrian's paths are accidentally crossed. By adhering the passenger to the front of the car, Google hopes to prevent them coming into any further trouble, such as being flung into a nearby passing bus. It will also help to constrain the movement of the pedestrian and bring both the pedestrian and the car to a more gradual stop.
However, with many predicting this part of the automotive industry to be the next big thing, investment and political interest continues to grow at pace. Other companies such as Volvo, Audi, Land Rover and Bosch have already begun their own research, while there is much speculation that Apple has been hard at work on a driverless vehicle for several years now.
Volvo, for example, is about to take 100 self-driving cars to China, where everyday people will put them to the test in real-life conditions. China is fast-tracking plans to get self-driving vehicles on the road, with a new Intel Labs startup taking on the task, along with the existing efforts of Baidu and Yutong, reports Gizmodo.
See also: Why you shouldn't buy an electric car
Driverless cars in the UK: Government investment signals a real future
For the last few years the UK government has been slowly increasing its financial commitment towards self-driving car research. In 2013 the UK Treasury’s Autumn statement contained an allocation of £10 million to the sector, supporting projects that were already underway. This has now increased to £20 million, as recently confirmed by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. While these amounts are nothing compared to the funds Google has at its disposal, it does signal the seriousness with which the area is being taken, and has enabled many projects in the British Isles to continue developing these important technologies. The past couple of years has already seen a number of road-going tests taking place around the country, and these could increase in frequency as production costs diminish and the software matures.
One of the major obstacles in the way of self-driving automation is that of legislation. The law can often be slow to catch up with technological progress, and when the safety of lives are involved it can be even more cautious. It’s significant then that the UK government has been praised by Google for its progressive approach to this often painful area. Ministers are reported to have met with representatives from the Californian company a number of times over the past two years, and in 2015 the Department of Transport published an official code of practice for testing self-driving cars on public roads. February this year also saw the current Deputy Mayor for Transport, Isabel Dedring, announce that discussions were taking place with Google about making London a trial city to test out the company’s driverless vehicles.
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Driverless cars podcast discussion
Driverless Cars in the UK: Self-Driving cars on British roads
If Google does decide to bring its vehicles to London, then it may well encounter a few other intelligent cars out and about. MOVE UK is a three year initiative due to start in April 2016, and will test out new self-driving software on the roads around Greenwich. The project has backing and involvement from Jaguar Land Rover, Bosch, the Transport Research Laboratory, Direct Line, The Floow, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The aim of the project is to refine the way a driverless car sees its environment and reacts the various situations. We assume this will include driving up to roundabouts while being bamboozled by swarms of Deliveroo riders coming from all directions, if it wants to have any hope of authenticity.
Members of the public can now register their interest to try out a driverless car in Greenwich. Trials in the cars - which are based on the Ultra Pods that run on rails at Heathrow - are due to take place between June and August, with the aim of finding out how people feel about travelling in driverless cars. However, the trial will operate on a DLR-like basis with a human driver on board to take the controls in case of an emergency, so it's not truly driverless.
Another project in Coventry will see 40 miles of road fitted with communications technologies to aid self-driving vehicles, while in Milton Keynes the LUTZ Pathfinder project has already been testing three driverless Pods on the roads, with plans to extend this to forty that will be split between Milton Keynes and Coventry.
Bloomberg reported in August 2016 that Uber, the popular app based taxi service in major cities around the world, is to deploy a fleet of driverless cars in the US city of Pittsburgh. While this is a small preliminary trial, with drivers manning the front seat in case of mishaps, it points towards a major push for driverless cars to become a reality over a fantasy.
Driverless cars in the UK: Why is it a good thing?
It might seem an odd thing, especially when you’re trusting your life to some software and sensors travelling at speed, but safety is a major selling point when it comes to driverless cars. While road accidents in the UK did fall slightly in 2015, there were still a reported 1,780 deaths and 23,700 people seriously injured. So far there have been very few reported accidents involving driverless vehicles, and in the cases that have been reported it seems that most of them are the fault of a collision with a normal car, and that the blame lay with the human involved.
Of course it’s still early days, and many of these driverless vehicles have been tested in reasonably peaceful locations rather than the angry, unpredictable environment of a large city at rush hour. That’s why the announced projects are so important. If the technology can adapt to an everyday driving scenario, and show itself to be less prone to road rage, careless driving, or speeding, then lives could well be saved in the process. There are still many miles to go and obstacles to overcome, but with the likes of Toyota, Audi, and Tesla saying they intend to release driverless- or driver-assisted cars in the next five years, it seems we won’t have too long to wait. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is confident that this is the future, and posed the question of whether in a few years time governments will be debating banning manually driven cars all together.
Driverless trucks in the UK
It's not just self-driving cars that will soon be on our roads; the Guardian reports how a convoy of self-driving trucks just made its first European cross-border trip. More than a dozen semi-automated smart trucks made by six of Europe's largest manufacturers arrived in Rotterdam from places such as Sweden and Germany on 6 April, it said. These trucks were driven in 'platoons', connected wirelessly, where the first truck determines the route and speed. However, a human was still required to be onboard.