A Window on the Future?

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An ambitious UK project could provide some good indicators for the future of autonomous vehicles (Photo credit: BMW Group)

Why we should pay attention to the UK’s ambitious autonomous vehicle feasibility study.

These days, you can’t turn around in the auto industry without hearing something about the concept of autonomous vehicles. From grandiose predictions of a future where “intelligent” cars will form part of a larger eco-system that virtually renders traffic jams and collisions as things of the past, to more near-term efforts by a number of OEMs to get autonomous vehicles on our roads, the subject of self-driving cars is complex and from many angles, highly controversial—not in the least because of the potential issues regarding liability, vehicle ownership, insurance claims and collision repairs.

In the United Kingdom, the government has taken a high profile step by giving its Innovate UK agency the green light in supporting three ambitious autonomous technology projects that will take place in four cities located in different parts of the country—Greenwich (central London), Coventry, (West Midlands) Milton Keynes (Buckinghamshire, central England) and Bristol (Avon, southwest England).

What is interesting is the fact that these projects, The GATEway, UK Autodrive and Venturer were launched following a government review that declared there were no real legal obstacles in having cars without human drivers operating on UK roads.

Although these projects will test a variety of autonomous vehicles under different conditions in an effort to determine what scenarios work effectively and which ones don’t, perhaps an even bigger impact of this exercise will be efforts to help gauge public opinion on the matter.

According to Tim Armitage, Associate Director of the Advanced Technology and Research Group at Arup, which heads up the UK Autodrive consortium, the idea is to monitor changes in public opinion and see how it perceives “the benefits and also the threats of a driverless vehicle.”

From the looks of things, it appears that certainly, at this moment in time, convincing the public of the benefits of autonomous vehicles is likely to be an uphill battle. A recent study conducted by UK price comparison and switching service, uSwitch, revealed that almost half of the 953 people surveyed said they would not be happy to ride as a passenger in an autonomous vehicle. Additionally, 43 percent said they would not trust such vehicles, while 15 percent of respondents were “horrified” at the idea of autonomous vehicles soon being deployed on UK roads.

Nevertheless, from a number of angles, the projects clearly make sense. Congested thoroughfares and a chronic shortage of parking in urban centres are a part of everyday reality for many British motorists and if, as Armitage envisions, autonomous vehicles become part of an infrastructure that could help alleviate such problems, such as communicating with traffic lights to avoid unnecessarily long queues at intersections, or scenarios where cars can locate parking spaces and connect with pods to transport people from these parking areas to the heart of cities like London (think futuristic park ‘n’ ride) then, the benefits could be significant and real.

Yet, for all the hype, it perhaps does appear that autonomous technology might actually end up suiting some environments better than others. Densely populated countries like the UK and other Western European nations are probably likely to see more benefits than many parts of North America, quite simply because that over here, greater distances between urban centres and the economies of scale are likely to make the true nationwide deployment of an intelligent transportation ecosystem significantly more difficult to realize. In some respects, it reminds me of how public transit and rail networks have developed and evolved in Europe compared to this side of the Atlantic.

In Europe, taxes, disposable income levels, space and infrastructure issues have tended to make car ownership less practical for many people compared with North America. And, combined with a much more developed public transport network, such as trains, buses and street cars, this partly explains why measures to introduce things such as road pricing (where car users pay for the distance they drive—and a significant consideration in the autonomous technology race) are seen as an effective way to help combat chronic parking shortages and traffic congestion.

While it is likely that we could see an increase in car sharing and user on demand services in the coming years, along with intelligent traffic lights and road infrastructure to help improve traffic efficiency, it is also likely that autonomous technology could end up being simply a part of a bigger overall picture than the one single solution to future transportation needs, much in the same way as battery electric cars are for reducing fossil fuel dependence.

Nevertheless, much as we’ve seen with developments in many areas of the automotive industry, including the collision sector (repair methodology and the growth in small, customer pay, mobile work comes to mind); keeping an eye on happenings in the UK can be very useful in determining what trends could emerge in North America, which is why it’s often good to pay attention to feasibility studies like this, even if they are being conducted in another part of the world.

For further reading on the subject, visit: www.arup.com/News/2014_12_December/02_Dec_Consortium_wins_competition_to_develop_driverless_cars.aspx

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