Up until just a few years ago, the idea of driverless cars on our roads seemed little more than fantasy. But in what seems a remarkably short space of time, connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) have gone from something only seen in the movies to a situation where in-depth tests are now in operation around the world, including the UK.
Is this something we should be embracing for its promised benefits or should we instead be cautious about the potential dangers?
First of all, let’s consider the positives that the technology is expected to bring for both individual users and wider society.
The advantages of autonomy
Proponents of CAVs claim that a future where our vehicles operate autonomously will not just improve traffic conditions and ease congestion, enhance road safety and reduce carbon emissions; it will also lead to more convenient, comfortable journeys and personalised, tailored services to suit all types of people.
This all sounds great, but in order to get to this stage a huge number of questions need to be answered before the technology can be considered safe, reliable and scalable. Semi-autonomous cars are already available – Tesla is undoubtedly the best known, thanks to its Autopilot feature – but going from here to a situation where humans are no longer needed behind the wheel at all represents a whole new level of challenges.
Although there is in theory a lot that can go wrong with this kind of technology due to the complexities, which are almost bewildering to the average person, significant progress is being made due to the success of rigorous early public testing.
Waymo, owned by Google parent company Alphabet Inc., has been trialling self-driving taxis in Phoenix, Arizona, and began offering limited ‘rider-only’ services last year. It has now set its sights on trucking and commercial delivery applications.
In the UK, new infrastructure necessary for the testing of CAVs is being installed in the West Midlands – the heart of the nation’s automotive industry and the site for its first ‘Future Mobility Zone’.
But that’s not the really interesting part - the UK record for the longest self-driving car journey has just been broken, and this was no quick trip around the block. Led by the HumanDrive project, the experiment carried out in February 2020 saw a customised Nissan Leaf make the drive all on its own from Cranfield, Bedfordshire to Sunderland – that’s more than 200 miles.
Taking the next step
This is a clear sign of the level of progress that is being made, but of course, one car travelling around autonomously (with a couple of engineers behind ready to step in if needed, by the way) is not the same as an entire nationwide network of self-driving cars all interacting with each other and the associated infrastructure. Getting to that point is another challenge entirely.
Safety and reliability remain an issue, which hasn’t been helped by high-profile cases of fatalities involving autonomous cars in recent years, especially the tragic death of Elaine Herzberg during a test carried out by Uber in 2018 – the first recorded death of a pedestrian involving a self-driving vehicle.
While consequences such as these are shocking, unacceptable and should never be allowed to happen again, these kinds of initiatives are crucial for determining how CAVs will integrate with existing roads and integrate with human drivers and their vehicles, while avoiding pedestrians and other obstacles.
What also has to happen before autonomous vehicles can be manufactured and rolled out at scale is for sensor and camera technology to improve in quality, but also come down in price. These are the remarkably intelligent devices that scan the environment around the vehicle and feed this data to the ‘brain’ of the vehicle where the decision about whether to accelerate, brake, turn etc. are made.
As things stand, the test vehicles currently being trialled are equipped with sensor suites that can cost many tens of thousands of pounds, and even they have numerous limitations, so there is a way to go before a mass market solution becomes viable.
Another barrier that remains in place is the issue of connectivity. An extensive network of autonomous vehicles will require the availability and transference of massive amounts of data delivered via high-speed networks. This simply won’t be possible with the existing technological infrastructure in place.
However, 5G is now arriving in the UK and in other countries around the world, and this seen as an important prerequisite for driverless cars to become a reality. For autonomous vehicles to work in all the same environments that driver-operated cars currently do – both urban and rural areas – high-speed connectivity will need to be in place everywhere, and that’s simply not the case yet.
Driverless technology has largely got the backing of automotive companies as well as local and national government, but the idea of driverless cars is yet to be welcomed by the general public if various polls and surveys are anything to go by.
There appears to be a widespread mistrust of technology taking charge of a task that has always been human-controlled, that people actually quite like to be in charge of and can have serious consequences if something goes wrong.
Many also feel that CAVs are being forced upon the population without proper public consultation, which is hardly the ideal way to win favour with the people who will be expected to use the technology if and when it eventually arrives.
Other widely publicised applications of autonomy in transport seem to be gaining more acceptance, such as lorry platooning – which has the potential to significantly lower emissions – and driverless logistics operations that enable faster, more efficient deliveries.
Perhaps this is because people can more clearly understand how these changes may benefit them and the wider public, whereas a future where they may find their own private car replaced with an autonomous alternative can feel like an attack on their freedom.
Overall, it might seem as though CAVs are just around the corner when you look at how quickly things are moving with trials of the technology, but we’re still a long way away from a completely driverless society.
There remain several hurdles to overcome – not just technologically, but socially, politically and economically too – but automotive companies and policymakers appear very confident that once these solutions have been found, and crucial factors such as safety, affordability and reliability are proven, we’ll all be converted to the cause.
Whether this turns out to be true, we’ll just have to wait and see.