Following a bout of frenzied activity involving some of the biggest names in the tech and auto industries, hands-free driving is now months, rather than years away. Car companies want autonomous vehicles to be on the road by 2020 or 2021, but the technology is about to hit a series of legislative and regulatory speed bumps.
The UK is investing £100 million in automated driving research, and is putting a law in place to ensure the country is at the forefront of self-driving car technology.
Self-driving pods and shuttles have been tested on pavements in a number of UK cities, using technology developed by Oxbotica, a spin-out from the University of Oxford. Further trials started this week in London.
Autonomous trucks are currently being tested by Volvo in a mine in Kristineberg, Sweden, while 100 families have volunteered to take part in car trials in Gothenburg city.
Things are moving quickly in Finland too, where manufacturers can simply download a special test plate from the internet, Antti Vehviläinen, director-general of the Finnish Transport Agency.
In one Helsinki neighbourhood, a driverless bus has been transporting commuters at a maximum speed of 40 kilometres per hour. For safety first, a person on board stands poised to press an emergency brake in case the technology fails.
In France, the government is giving the technology serious attention, with 21 working groups. On-the-road experiments will not start until mid-2018, however.
Full speed ahead to a regulatory void
But as a European Commission conference in Brussels this week heard, driverless cars face a regulatory void in Europe.
Twenty-one EU countries are signatories to a UN treaty rule which requires a driver to be able to take control of a vehicle at any point.
The rule allows for testing of driverless cars, but it does not allow them to run on public roads without a driver in control.
The technology will require massive regulatory change said Henriette Spyra, Austria’s strategic coordinator of mobility transformation and transport. “I’m not even talking just about the road code, but for every new use case that comes along for testing, we’ll have to change the rules,” she said.
Progress towards an EU-wide regulatory path for these future cars is slow. “The list of local exceptions in transport regulations is longer than the text – you would need a PhD to go through them,” said José Manuel Viegas, secretary-general of the OECD’s International Transport Forum.
Things are moving faster in the US, where the government has proposed spending $4 billion on the technology over 10 years. In September 2016, lawmakers laid out a regulatory route for automakers, and the financial resources of US tech firms such as Tesla, Uber, Google and Apple put them in pole position to develop the technology.
While there is little doubt that the robot driver’s day is coming, there is still debate about whether it will lead to fewer cars on the roads.
Richard Threlfall, global head of public transport at management consultants KPMG, pointed to two different ways of thinking about robot rides in Europe and in the US. “In the US there is this assumption that people will want to retain their personal space and own their own cars. Over here, the talk is usually about people sharing cars,” he said.
David O'Neil, head of the political liaison department at the transport organisation authority Syndicat des Transports d'Île-de-France, agreed, saying, “The success of [ridesharing service] BlaBla car tells us people are ready to share a car.”
In addition, “There’s Uber Pool showing us the potential of shared travel – it already transports more people than night buses,” O’Neil said.
Carlo van de Weijer, director of smart mobility at the Technical University of Eindhoven, says robot rides will open up mobility for anyone who currently cannot drive – and by that logic, driverless cars will cause worse congestion. “But it will change the concept of traffic. If you can work on your laptop while you travel, you won’t mind being stuck in a jam,” he said.
With more traffic, cars would spend longer on the roads, potentially using up more energy. And because distances workers need to travel for work will become less important, it will promote urban sprawl.
Giving up the steering wheel
Limited forms of hands-free driving have already arrived in cars. But the thought of giving up the steering wheel is making plenty of people nervous.
“You have to ensure safety,” said Yann Leriche, chief performance officer of the public transport operator Transdev, which operates six driverless shuttles to transport people around the nuclear power plant in Civaux, France. “Without the driver, how do we manage these situations? We’ll have to invent a situation where people feel secure,” Leriche said.
“Human presence is still a big issue – people want to see it on public transport,” O'Neil agreed. “We hired 1,500 extra people on buses, trains and trams last year.”
A driver also helps ensure people pay for tickets on public transport, Leriche adds. “It’s good to have the pressure of the driver’s eyes, looking at you,” he said.
Consumer demand for self-driving cars could rise if the safety promises bear out. Driverless technology is expected to dramatically do better on the 90 – 95 per cent of accidents caused by humans, says van de Weijer. Research by the US government predicts that driverless vehicles will lead to an 80 per cent decline in the number of car crashes by 2035.
No politician will sign off on the technology unless they can be sure it can do better than a human. “The computer has to be the dominant solution,” said Viegas. “It must be always better than a human, not just on average.”
Accidents involving driverless cars have caused a big splash in the media. The negative attention is not always fair, says Roberto Baldessari, manager of intelligent transport systems group at NEC Laboratories Europe. “We should speak up about how we will prevent accidents,” he said.
The matter of liability remains a huge unanswered question. A new insurance bill, the first of its kind for driverless cars, is in the works in the UK, said Ian Forbes, head of the centre for connected and autonomous vehicles at the Department for Transport.
“The bill will say that if there is an accident involving a car, insurance companies will pay out to the victims, and then can argue the issue with manufacturers afterwards,” he said.
Remaining technology issues
Tom Lüders, director of testing solutions with Hella Aglaia, a smart image processing lab, is part of a team teaching cars to recognise pedestrians.
Driverless cars are a combination of the laser sensing technology, cameras, radars, pre-programmed algorithms and learning algorithms. The volume of data is daunting. “It’s 7.4 terabytes per day per vehicle. It’s definitely too much to transfer over the internet,” Lüders said.
This points to another challenge to lawmakers, to improve connectivity speeds. Without faster communications networks, an area the EU is in charge of regulating, driverless cars will not be able to run in Europe.
Van de Weijer meanwhile is researching how driverless cars cooperate with other cars and pedestrians at junctions. “Taking the driver out of the loop is a problem so far. Already in Amsterdam it is hard but think about cities with millions of pedestrians like Hanoi or Mumbai,” he said.
He played a video of a driverless car confused about its right of way at a busy junction. “At this point all it can do is park itself and cry very loudly,” he said.