Road Safety News

Driverless cars on UK roads in January 2015

Wednesday 30th July 2014

The Government has announced two new measures which give the green light for driverless cars to take to UK roads from January 2015.

UK cities can now bid for a share of a £10m competition to host a driverless cars trial. The Government is calling on cities to join together with businesses and research organisations to put forward proposals to become a test location.

Up to three cities will be selected to host the trials which will start in January 2015 and run for between 18 and 36 months.

Ministers have also launched a review to look at current road regulations and ensure there is an appropriate regime for testing driverless cars.

Two areas of driverless technology will be covered in the review: cars with a qualified driver who can take over control of the driverless car, and fully autonomous vehicles where there is no driver.

Speaking at MIRA – the vehicle engineering consultancy, test and research facility - Vince Cable, business secretary, said: “The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as a pioneer in the development of driverless vehicles.

“Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society.”

Claire Perry, transport minister, said: “Driverless cars have huge potential to transform the UK’s transport network – they could improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions.

“We are determined to ensure driverless cars can fulfill this potential which is why we are actively reviewing regulatory obstacles to create the right framework for trialling these vehicles on British roads.”

The driverless cars’ competition is being funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the DfT, in partnership with the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board. The deadline for applications for the competition is 1 October 2014.

Successful projects will need to be “business-led and demonstrate close collaboration with partners such as technology developers, supply chain companies and manufacturers”.



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There are two strands to this technology, assistive and self driving. In assistive the driver is always driving, but the car’s systems are monitoring and alerting or intervening. These exist already as ABS, traction control, stability control, lane departure warning and more. They will become more pervasive but the driver will always need to be driving so there will not be a hand over.

For self driving, apart from the experimental stage where the human is actively monitoring and expecting to take over, there will not be a way to hand over control as there will not be any controls there. Possibly someone in a control room might be able to do so (if the vehicle has stopped in a “safe mode”) but not anyone in a production vehicle. Consequently there will never be a hand over situation.
Mark, Caerphilly

Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

Completely agree on the hand-back situation, which is why these trials are very important:

"Two areas of driverless technology will be covered in the review: cars with a qualified driver who can take over control of the driverless car, and fully autonomous vehicles where there is no driver."

Hopefully the results of these trials will guide the legislative framework surrounding driverless vehicles as current talk has been about leaving ultimate responsibility with the "passenger" to intervene. Imagine your cab driver turning round and saying "It's your fault for not stopping me crashing!"
Matt Staton, Cambridgeshire

Agree (5) | Disagree (0)

The connection between driverless cars and aviation is quite close because the driverless car is trying to emulate the record of the fully automatic aeroplane.

Apart from one or two incidents early on (Habsheim and Dehli A320 crashes being prime examples) the record of automatic areoplanes has been quite good. What must be remembered though is that commercial air transports operate in a very rigid and closely controlled environment where standard operating procedures are essential. The key feature that allows automatic aeroplanes to operate so safely is that they are operating under direct control from ATC who are able to see that standard operating procedures are being followed and who can take action if they are not. The automatic aeroplane is only one half of a very complex system which is a fact often ignored by the driverless car lobby.

Another consideration in the early days of aeroplanes like the A320 was that the most common phrase heard on cockpit voice recorders just before major accidents and incidents were "what's it doing now"? These are the results of automation surprises when the pilots become confused as to the exact state of the automatics. Disaster usually occurs when the automatics trip out due to there being no rule or program available appropriate to the situation when they will hand back control to the pilots. Of course the pilots have no idea what's going on either as they have been out of the control loop while the situation was deteriorating. This is a situation that has so far been touted as the ultimate fail-safe for driverless cars yet experience shows that hand-back's are more of a fail-unsafe than anything else.
Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon

Agree (5) | Disagree (1)

No-one would be able to afford such a vehicle. Maybe that is the real target - no-one driving. We become passive goods in transit.
Derek Reynolds, Salop.

Agree (1) | Disagree (6)

Idris - you say:
"Nor are comparisons with aircraft in the least relevant, distances between then usually being measured in miles not in inches, and necessary response times in minutes not fractions of a second."

Might be worth discussing this point with Duncan MacKillop (whom you congratulate in your post) because he's constantly holding up the aircraft safety industry as a model that road safety should aspire to and learn from!
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

Agree (12) | Disagree (1)

On the other hand Idris, the one thing driverless cars will not be doing is exceeding any speed limits. Perhaps this could mean the end of speed cameras one day. Good news for you and one or two other contributors surely?
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

Agree (9) | Disagree (1)

Well done Duncan and Eric - absolutely right. As it happens I am an electronic engineer (1st Class Honours and IEE Prize 1960, for the record) and I spent my working life designing and manufacturing systems and components for remote and other control of moving objects.

I refuse to believe that software engineers can write software that will respond correctly to the near infinite variations of conditions that drivers do, for the most part, handle on a day to day basis. Or that the large number of sensors required to monitor outside the vehicle will never be wrong, or that the sum total of all of these complexities could result in fewer accidents than humans cause, if not ever then certainly not in the lifetime of anyone reading this.

Nor are comparisons with aircraft in the least relevant, distances between then usually being measured in miles not in inches, and necessary response times in minutes not fractions of a second.
Idris Francis Fight Back With Facts Petersfield

Agree (7) | Disagree (8)

I am surprised that the example of planes flying by computer has not been given? If I missed it my apologies. I agree that the pilot is there to take over but unless the airlines keep it to themselves, I don’t think they have to step in very often. So take-off and landing is controlled by human but everything else is in the hands of the microchip. The most dangerous thing in a car is the driver so if you take them out of the equation and the technology works (yes I know, If?) then bring on the future.
Stuart Rochdale

Agree (9) | Disagree (5)

Thanks for the info, I'm sure I'm not alone in (wondering) just how much technology will be going into these things. I'm still not certain though how a driverless car (even with all the sensors) could manage temporary traffic works/closures and associated diversion route signing? Big motorway closures I believe are currently covered, but the 100s of smaller works all around cities? Sometimes you have to read a sign.

P.S. Despite the scepticism I am a fan of the concept!
Tom - Exeter

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The use of Sat Nav technology is one of many aspects that will be used, just like you do, and probably just to check that the vehicle is where it thinks it is. If your Sat Nav included G sensors* and an e-compass it would not put you on the wrong road based on the approximate GPS co-ordinates or the route it thought you were going to go on. Add e-giroscopes, feedback from the wheels and steering, several cameras, a few radar detectors, a couple of laser range finders** and all the photo information being collected to compare the camera views against*** and it will not make these errors. In fact, with an e-map and enough vehicle telematics, plus start point, you don’t need GPS – used to be called inertial guidance before GPS existed and computers were steam driven.

*three in high end “Car/Dash cams”
**front and rear
***another reason for the camera cars have been touring the world's highways
Mark, Caerphilly

Agree (3) | Disagree (3)

I predict the first driverless cars operating commercially on our roads will be in the role of taxis and Keith will not be “waiting to grab the wheel” as there will not be one. When a collision occurs there will be a full camera and data record (7 cameras on one vehicle) and you will be able to sue the operator not the passenger. What concerns me is that we want people to walk and cycle more but I can see Mum using her GCar app to summon one for little Johnny to go to his friend’s house rather than risk the “dangers” of him walking. (switch Mum for Dad and Johnny for Julie as required).
Mark, Caerphilly

Agree (5) | Disagree (1)

Completely agree with some of the previous comments - having sat on a soulless 150 mile northern trip at 70mph I cannot wait for this technology to exist and with proper trials it is inevitable it will do so.

As for the available technology to successfully implement it, is the current level of GPS up to scratch? My SatNav will still fairly commonly mistake me using a slip road when I've actually stayed on the motorway - what happens when an automated vehicle suddenly brakes for a give way line on a 70mph road in this scenario? What happens when it recalculates a route? (How many times have these things suggested doing a U-turn in a silly location) What happens in tunnels with no signal? What happens when a diversion is in place due to road works/accidents (assume fully automated) and it has to divert off the normal route by following signs?
Tom - Exeter

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To quote Rod King: - “Traffic lights are computer controlled, with drivers intuitively accepting that they are not in error.”

It has been shown that when traffic signals break down at junctions, the traffic speed slows, but the flow increases (see Martin Cassini’s Fit Roads film). Signals may be activated by vehicle presence and/or speed, yet they are quite capable of causing unnecessary delays and congestion – computer or no. When lights are installed at roundabouts, traffic begins the unwelcome activity of the ‘Green light Grand Prix’. This does not increase road safety at all.

When computers break down – and they do, we are left pretty much stranded. Such driverless vehicles may seem a vision of the future (and has been for at least six decades). We are still using the human brain, which itself is an infinitely complex computer capable of exceeding many inorganic types – but which is also fallible hence ‘incidents’. Are we not just trying to re-invent ourselves and our thoughts in the belief we can be better than we are? Or just to cocoon ourselves in yet more microchipology to deflect our personal responsibilities onto some computer?
Derek Reynolds, Salop.

Agree (7) | Disagree (4)

Further to my last comment, thinking on, logically, driverless vehicles should really be used by those who can't be trusted with the real thing. White vans and private-hire cars to name but two.
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

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Mmm! How much of a 'head turning distraction' would a driverless car be to other road users?
Malc Shropshire

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How about reserving these vehicles for use only by those whose driving offences would normally result in a ban or several points. The vehicles could be marked accordingly e.g. "Drunk at the wheel" or "Persistent speeder" so that we would all know and point and it would also allow celebrities to carry on with their suddenly very precious charity work which is what they usually claim when facing a driving ban. Who knows they might actually learn something about restraint behind the wheel.
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

Agree (5) | Disagree (5)

A driverless car will have to be able to simulate most of the functions of the human brain and the enormity of that task beggars belief. Because of this it is likely that most of these vehicles will be bound by pre-defined rule sets rather than having systems that learn as they go along. Writing rules is a very difficult task as evidenced by the fact that there is a 500 page paper in the British Library on the rules for making a cup of tea. Even with that depth of study it is still possible to follow them and not end up with a nice cuppa.
Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon

Agree (6) | Disagree (2)

I think that we under-estimate the degree of driver-less intervention we already have.

Traffic lights are computer controlled, with drivers intuitively accepting that they are not in error. Many in-car functions are completely computer driven, including braking systems, steering systems, fly-by-wire controls, gearboxes, engine management systems.

The idea of driver-less cars doesn't frighten me, in fact I suspect that their actions would be far more predictable than many driver controlled cars. We should consider the idea with an open mind, whilst being aware of the need for appropriate rigour and scrutiny.
Rod King, BSc Automotive Engineering

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It seems people are wanting driverless cars to be perfect before their use is sanctioned on the public highway. But the key question should surely be, would driverless cars be safer than humans? We have data on the human safety record, which is not perfect; we can only know if driverless cars can do better by trying them. It is for the technologists to satisfy the authorities that this can be done without undue risk.

As a child in the 1960s I remember repeatedly seing graphic representations of "life in the future". In those days bold changes were imagined: I am sad that when we have such an opportunity to advance our approach to travel we might cling desperately to the past. Children who grow up in the world of driverless cars will wonder what all the fuss was about. And driverless cars will surely come, because once an idea is conceived it cannot be un-conceived. As long as there is a commercial or defence imperative the idea will inexorably move towards implementation.
Tim Philpot, Wolverhampton

Agree (15) | Disagree (4)

In line with Duncan's comment.
What happens when a driverless car is faced with a situation to make a decision based on the lesser of two evils. Humans have the ability, where for example a pedestrian steps out between cars to alter direction and if necessary collide with something that will not result in such potentially devastating injury.

Will owners/occupant of driverless vehicles face prosecution for failing to control take control when they should have or prosecuted for taking control when they should have left it alone. I assume the need for eye to ey contact for drivers/ motorcycles will go out the window as the driver I assume will not be paying attention. Body language and eye contact for drivers will become worthless. Road users will need to be on the ball to discriminate between driverless and driver driven cars. Can't wait to get my first driveless car and sit there with my arms poised over the wheel ready to act.

Agree (9) | Disagree (2)

I can think of several instances where this technology has the potential to improve safety. Here are three:

• Older drivers. We have an ageing population and many older people wish to retain the use of their car to preserve their independance and enhance the quality of thier lives. Driverless cars have the potential to help them achieve this on the regular journeys they make to the supermarket, doctor's surgery etc. A driverless vehicle may well be safer than some elderly drivers in their 80s, 90s and even older.

• Long journeys. Yesterday I had to make a business-related 350-mile round trip (with multiple breaks) and would have welcomed handing over to a driverless car for some of the tedious stretches on the M1 and A14. Yes, we all know that the advice to drivers on long journeys is that they should take regular breaks but in reality many don't - because they want to get home for supper, to watch the telly, see the kids etc. I believe driverless cars could play an important role in making long journeys safer for people travelling on their own.

• Speed limits. Presumably this technology will recognise speed limits and ensure the car drives within the limit. This will avoid the driver absent-mindedly (or even deliberatly) careering through, say, a 30-mph limit at 40mph plus - thereby improving safety for other road users (and at the same time avoiding a fine and points for the driver).

The people involved in developing this technology are not stupid - they will be only too aware that there will be people on this forum and elsewhere waiting for (maybe even willing) them to fail.

There are frequent calls on this forum for trials or tests before a new system or technology is introduced - that is exactly what is happening in this instance.

I say let the trail proceed, keep an open mind - and let's see what happens rather than pre-judging the outcome.
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

Agree (23) | Disagree (3)

Computers work exactly to rule. When human beings work to rule the result is usually chaos. What humans do is to use a broad rule structure and then modify them on the fly so that they fit the prevailing circumstances this is best understood by the phrase "it is better to be roughly right than exactly wrong". Computers are still years away from being able to do that.
Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon

Agree (9) | Disagree (3)

Surely it would somehow require the technology to be adapted so that it worked on pedestrians, cyclists - in fact all road users, rather than just the vehicle. That would be the only way a collision between any vehicle or road user may be avoided. Alternatively we take all road users off the road completely.
Robert - Dorset

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No Nick, when it happens.
This is no time for Titanic thinking, especially on a road safety website - let the technologists play in controlled conditions but safety folk should be the cautious ones.
The complexity of the road network and what can happen on it is far greater than can be programmed by systems and software engineers, as Duncan has lucidly explained in many previous postings.
Eric Bridgstock, Independent Road Safety Research, St Albans

Agree (12) | Disagree (9)

If it happens.
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

Agree (10) | Disagree (10)

I wonder which city is going to host the first ever collision between a driverless car and another person or vehicle? Personally I can't wait to hear all the excuses that will be trotted out to try and explain it away once it happens.
Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon

Agree (11) | Disagree (10)