The most significant road trials of driverless car technology to take place in the UK to date are underway in south London. For the next two months, a small fleet of Ford Mondeos that have been kitted out with a self-driving technology stack developed by UK start-up Five AI, will be driving through the streets of Croyden and Bromley. The cars, replete with their array of sensors, cameras and AI algorithms to process the data gathered and instantaneously arrive at decisions on what actions to take, will even be carrying passengers along the fixed 12-mile route they have permission to navigate several times a day.
Before any residents or regular visitors to Bromley and Croyden start to panic, the driverless cars are not really driverless – yet. A safety driver primed to take control if necessary will always be at the wheel throughout the trials. A ‘safety technician’ will also be permanently present in the front passenger seat. However, practically speaking, it will be the driverless technology in control for the majority of the time.
Despite the trials being carefully controlled and limited to set routes, transport secretary Grant Shapps has described the development as a “major step” towards the UK government’s target of fully autonomous vehicles being on the country’s roads by 2021. The government’s Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy paper lays out how it is practically planning for the introduction of self-driving vehicles. The government is determined for the UK to be among the global leaders in introducing driverless tech on the country’s roads, reasoning that doing so will represent a competitive advantage. As explained by Mr Shapps:
“The untapped potential of self-driving vehicle technology is huge — it could enhance road safety, tackle isolation, and create economic opportunities., and Streetwise’s successful trial will be a major step to rolling out the next phase of the UK’s transport revolution.”
Full autonomy of driverless vehicles is characterised as ‘level 5’ autonomy, which means no safety driver is present and the vehicle not restricted to pre-approved routes. The trials have been arranged by Streetwise, a UK driverless tech research consortium led by Five AI. Insurer Direct Line, also a part of the consortium, has recruited the volunteer passengers who will take part in the trials. They will be asked to complete questionnaires before, during and after their journeys, providing feedback on how the perceived their experience.
The trials themselves are being led by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL). David Hynd, the organisation’s chief scientist commented:
“Automated vehicles represent the future of transport and have the potential to deliver tangible, wide-reaching benefits in relation to reduced congestion, faster and cheaper commutes, fewer collisions and cleaner air.
“We’re very excited about entering this phase of the project to create credible and real-world insights on the willingness to use and attitudes towards a shared, automated service, which will go a long way to helping us understand how these services can meet users’ need.”
The UK is still a long way behind the USA when it comes to hosting test drives for driverless vehicles. Companies in the space such as Google-parent Alphabet’s Waymo have already conducted thousands of miles of test drives across the Atlantic. Waymo is already offering a paid service in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona and recently announced that it will soon be doing so without a safety driver. However, despite the progress being made, sceptics believe it could realistically be up to another decade before driverless technology is proven to be safe enough for widespread use and regulations and legal systems catch up to allow autonomous vehicles onto the roads outside of fixed routes.