The drive for autonomy

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Autonomous Vehicles: A thought leadership review of how the UK can achieve a fully autonomous future - .PDF file.

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How autonomous vehicles could help the elderly while mixing safely with standard vehicles is among the topics covered in the IET’s new review

Margaret is a widow who is independent of spirit and sharp of mind. She lives in a rural town and her eldest son and grandchildren live in a village about a mile and a half away.

Her two sons wonder why she persists with the upkeep of her ancient Renault Clio and on this she is unequivocal: the car provides independence in an area where car ownership is key to personal mobility.

Margaret is also 75 and her fully-functioning mental faculties are offset by certain physical ravages that make walking or cycling inconvenient as a means of mobility. Buses run in the area but services are infrequent.

Once behind the wheel, Margaret maintains a speed of 40mph regardless of the road she’s on, making her a hazard in 30mph zones and a burden on roads where the national speed limit applies. She isn’t alone, with research indicating that a number of older drivers struggle to maintain a constant speed.

According to DVLA, there are nearly four million driving license holders aged 70 or over and notable efforts have been made to understand their driving behaviour in order to keep this demographic on the road.

There are many who believe that Margaret will eventually have access to fully autonomous vehicles that will obey speed limits and remove the elements of driving that slowly erode an older driver’s confidence.

Today’s publication of ‘Autonomous vehicles: A thought leadership review of how the UK can achieve a fully autonomous future’ from IET delves further into the benefits and potential pitfalls facing this burgeoning mode of mass transportation.

Greater freedom of mobility is cited as one of many benefits that the autonomous vehicle could bring to those who are older, impaired or disabled. Better fuel efficiency and improved safety are noted also as priorities for driving forward the autonomous road vehicles agenda.

But what sort of autonomous car do we want? Would we want to enter coordinates or post code into a vehicle’s navigation system, then sit back whilst the car made its journey in the most fuel-efficient way possible?

Would the autonomous vehicle avoid violating a pedestrian’s right of way, for example, at zebra crossings – and a pox on the two minicab drivers who did exactly that to me this week.

Whilst on safety, is it likely that autonomy will usher in an era when vehicle collisions are eradicated entirely?

Is it indeed fair to assume that that automotive autonomy would come with these benefits as standard?

The IET’s report is a summary of a debate that followed a speech given by Prof Phil Blythe, director of the Transport Operations Group at Newcastle University.

The view taken was that autonomous vehicles would become more pervasive. However, the report says that the challenge was more in full autonomy in mixed traffic environments, as opposed to closed or semi closed environments, where there was less interaction with the wider public.

Until mixed mode technologies could be widely tested, talking about ‘assisted’ rather than ‘autonomous driving’ might help the public get used to driverless vehicles on the roads.

Barriers relating to liability and regulation persist and you only have to look at motorsports, for example, to see that the very act of driving remains a passion for a good many people.

And will an accident-free utopia evolve with vehicle autonomy? Likely not, with the best case scenario in 15 years from now indicating that collisions will happen eventually. However, for one error made by an autonomous vehicle, they will have made 10,000 more correct errors than a human driver. This, of course, will be largely reliant also on robust software technologies, but gains need to be made to rectify the approximately 98 per cent of applications currently containing serious defects.

Networks that can support the requirements of autonomous driving and real-time traffic management will need to be markedly improved too.

The mobile network today, with the latency that it has – and the bandwidth across the cells and so on – is not really suitable to build a full blown, fully automatic traffic management system.

Putting Margaret in an autonomous vehicle clearly remains a distant dream so fingers crossed that her Clio can puff and wheeze its way through another servicing and MOT. She probably won’t experience automotive autonomy in her lifetime and the question remains whether it will be her sons, or indeed grandchildren, that fully reap the full benefits of such systems.  

Click here to access IET’s report.