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Solving the tech challenges of driverless cars

Nick Chrissos, director of innovation, Europe, at Cisco, discusses the UK’s driverless future.

In the past 150 years, the pace of technological change in the transport industry has accelerated beyond belief. From the 1885 invention of the first ever automobile to the potential of driverless cars ushering in the next transport revolution, as humans we are constantly striving to improve the way we travel.

To state the obvious, there is a massive difference between driverless cars being developed and manufactured to deploying them on public highways. There are plenty of barriers to consider: from policy issues to cultural attitudes and, of course, the technical aspects of a move towards this new mobility system.

However, a new report titled ‘Anticipating autonomous: the UK’s driverless future’, commissioned by London’s Smart Mobility Living Lab, shows that the prevailing attitude toward connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) among business leaders is a positive one.

Almost two-thirds (65%) are confident that CAVs will be made available on UK roads in the next five years. Furthermore, the research revealed a growing sense of anticipation towards the societal benefits they will bring within the next decade.

Advantage autonomous

If there was only one reason for implementing driverless cars in the UK, it would be to make roads safer. For consumers, attitudes towards the safety of CAVs are on a positive trajectory. Deloitte’s 2018 Global Automotive Consumer Study found that less than half (49%) believe that self-driving vehicles will be unsafe, down from 73% in 2017.

When it comes to leaders from transport, automotive and technology organisations, attitudes are expectedly more positive: only 17% did not agree that CAVs would make UK roads safer, with two-thirds (67%) agreeing that they will.

Beyond safety, industry experts are excited about the wider role CAVs will play in British society. Almost half (49%) highlighted increased mobility for elderly and disabled people as a key benefit.

With the latest ONS projections showing that there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over in 50 years’ time, the potential of CAVs to increase opportunity and mobility for elderly and disabled people is a major benefit.

Another key advantage promised by CAVs is reducing congestion on UK roads – 41% believe that this will come to fruition – which in turn may bring down commuting times. Over half (51%) believe that CAVs will free up time for commuters through reduced travel time.

Improving peoples’ access to the world around them will have a positive impact on quality of life, whilst opening the door to an untapped demographic for local shops, businesses and service providers. In economic terms, 62% agreed that CAVs would have a positive impact on UK GDP – indicating a belief in the ability of CAVs to bring tangible commercial and societal advantages.

Lifting CAVs from anticipation to deployment

According to this study, we’re still very much in the formative years of CAVs. Collaboration between industries, governments and regulators will be essential in navigating this final period of development and eventual implementation. However, are there other perceived barriers which are stunting the progress of real-world CAV deployments?

Investment in the UK’s digital infrastructure was flagged (39%) as a key step for making self-driving cars commercially available in the next five years, suggesting a significant number of industry decision makers do not believe the current networks are fit-for-purpose.

In-vehicle technology (47%) and roadside technologies (44%) were also noted as requiring advancement enough to support a full rollout. Given the lack of real-world deployments of CAVs in the UK on which to base this theory, it is understandable that a perception exists that the necessary technologies are not ready.

This is a crucial point. Without the necessary infrastructure to support autonomous vehicles, the exciting benefits which many expect will never become a reality.

You can think of CAVs as lifts rather than traditional vehicles. Lifts work as part of a system: you wouldn’t separate the lift from the lift shaft and the runners it moves on, so why not apply the same thinking to CAVs?

Autonomous vehicles will exist as part of a single system, moving along preordained routes and in harmony with all other aspects of the system – including, of course, other vehicles and road users. A fully connected infrastructural environment is fundamental to making this a reality.

Therefore, if the aim of driverless cars is to provide mobility on demand in the most efficient way possible, it makes sense to think of them as operating in a ‘networked’ way.

Testing the tyres

The only way to truly move the needle on perceptions towards a lack of technological advancement holding CAVs back is to conduct more successful trials and testing of these technologies on UK soil, especially in complex urban settings.

Navigating the interplay between in-car technology, roadside technology, broader vehicle infrastructure, data security and regulation requirements is too complex for any one developer or industry to solve on its own.

Comprehensive testing, collaborative R&D and collective regulation development is the only way for CAVs to become a commercial reality. This will require greater collaboration between the technology industry, vehicle manufacturers and the public bodies responsible for these infrastructure upgrades.

More than two-thirds (68%) of respondents to the ‘Anticipating autonomous’ study think CAVs need to be subjected to rigorous real-world testing before they can be used on UK roads.

Taking it one step further, 45% think live testing environments which involve interaction between self-driving and non-self-driving vehicles as well as pedestrians, are important. A further 39% think extensive consumer trials must take place before CAVs will be a commercial reality.

Most respondents (84%) agree that the UK needs its own testing facilities for CAVs, 70% declaring themselves confident that CAVs can be successfully regulated against a standard. Real-world testing and collaboration is just as important for regulators as it is for vehicle manufacturers and technology developers, so these issues must be addressed before extensive deployments can commence.

Tech’s next steps

The future looks bright for autonomous vehicles – 84% of those surveyed believe that they will be made available in the UK within the next decade – a massive vote of confidence.

While real-world testing and regulatory standards are critical to insuring the future viability of CAVs, making sure that the necessary technological infrastructure is in place to support them is chief among our current priorities.

Led by TRL and supported by a consortium including Cisco, TfL, DG Cities, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Cubic, and Loughborough University, the SMLL co-innovation project is leading the search for answers.

Cisco’s role in this innovation project is to lead the building phase, laying the groundwork for the future of mobility itself. With expertise from across the transport and technology industries, SMLL will build a testbed located across the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, to offer a uniquely complex urban setting for developing future transport technologies.

The testbed will become the place to go for advanced real-world CAV and transport testing – where technology and service providers from related and unrelated industries can look at the entire connected transport environment and get their products and services market-ready, faster.

A UK road network used predominantly by CAVs is almost upon us. The journey has begun.