As technological endeavours go, attempting to build cars capable of driving without human supervision is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious. From lowering emissions and lowering the likelihood of accidents to improving traffic flow and extending a lifeline to the visually impaired and elderly, the benefits of self-driving cars are often cited by evangelists. Yet, for all the initial hype, outside of contained trials, the UK’s roads remain unbothered by them.
The Government’s bold assertion that the first types of self-driving vehicles could make their way onto UK roads by the end of the year raised eyebrows earlier this week, after the Department for Transport (DfT) confirmed that vehicles with automated lane-keeping systems technology (ALKS) could be legally defined as self-driving.
Under the new regulations, cars equipped with ALKS will be able to drive themselves within a single motorway lane, controlling its speed up to 37mph for extended periods of time. However, although drivers will be allowed to take their hands off the wheel while the system is enabled, they’ll need to remain alert in order to resume control within 10 seconds should the system request they take over.
Critics have raised concerns that ALKS should not be classed as automated but treated as an assistive system to avoid misleading the public into believing the car is more capable than it is. Thatcham Research, a research centre that safety tests vehicles for the motor insurance industry, and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) claimed the Government was “contributing to the confusion and frequent misuse of assisted driving systems that have unfortunately already led to many tragic deaths,” warning that drivers must not be given “unrealistic expectations” of ALKS’ capability.
A spokesperson for the DfT said that drivers must understand both the capability and limitations of ALKS, adding “while they may be allowed to take their hands off the wheel while it is in operation, they must be able to take back control in a timely manner”.
“We will add a new section for automated vehicles to the Highway Code and are working closely with manufacturers to ensure drivers are properly educated in the difference between assisted driving and automation, and on how to use the technology safely and responsibly,” they added.
Christian Wolmar, transport commentator and author of Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere? accused the Government of playing with fire by claiming the news heralded the start of driverless cars in the UK, calling it “nothing of the sort”.
“They seem to be completely confused about the difference between driver aids and self-driving,” he says. “The politicians are so hooked on this: why aren’t they being more sceptical? I guarantee that someone will get killed because they will overestimate what the cars can do.”
The road to the UK’s self-driving cars has been far from smooth. The Government first promised “genuine driverless vehicles” – cars without a human safety driver – by 2021 back in 2017. But industry unease around the 2018 death of Elaine Herzberg, the first known pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car, coupled with a dawning realisation of the colossal challenges in teaching a vehicle system to drive like a human means that while experts are divided over when – or even if – that milestone will be reached, it’s clear there’s zero chance of it happening before the year is out.
“Manufacturers have realised how hard it is to create that level of autonomy in a world when you and I are in our cars,” says Miles Garner, sales and marketing director at Aurrigo, a Coventry-based autonomous vehicles company that recently resumed pandemic-halted trials of its driverless shuttles in Cambridge. “It is very, very tough to do, that’s why our company took the decision eight years ago to concentrate on vehicles making the last mile of a journey in low speed, camera-controlled environments, because it’s easier to do.”
William Sachiti, chief executive of Academy of Robotics, which manufactured the first car custom-built for self-driving delivery to be licensed by the DVLA to travel on the UK roads, says mass adoption of driverless cars is unlikely to start before late 2022 at the earliest.
Future adoption of self-driving technology is going to be driven primarily by vehicles designed to transport goods rather than people, as it’s focused on solving a very specific problem, he maintains.
“I’ve just never really thought an autonomous car will change my life, but an autonomous delivery call would,” he says. “We’ll have them to carry people around, but I don’t think it’s going to be mass adoption on the level to justify the billions of pounds invested into it simply because how many people right now think Uber’s a terrible service? It’s good enough.
“I would not give level four driving [defined as “fully autonomous vehicles designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip, according to the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers)] to consumers today. Anyone who that self-driving cars will take to Britain’s roads en masse before 2022 probably doesn’t work in the industry – I don’t think any of the tech is consumer-ready because these aren’t cars – they’re computers with wheels. In five years we’ll start seeing a lot more.”
Mark Cracknell, head of connected and automated mobility at Zenzic, the government-backed agency tasked with boosting the UK’s self-driving sector, agrees. The next two to three years will see the UK’s self-driving car industry working towards getting the fundamentals right, but 2025 will represent a real turning point, he says. “From that point, we’ll have all the ingredients to really scaled up self-driving vehicles on the road, and we’ll start to see greater numbers of them,” he says. The first commercial autonomous services without safety drivers, meanwhile, are more likely to appear at the turn of the decade, he asserts.
While the likes of Google, Uber, Lyft and major automakers attracted global attention with their daring declarations and ambitious timeframes over the past five years and there’s no doubt that self-driving vehicles will definitely happen, future vehicles may not quite match up to what Silicon Valley promised us, warns Richard Cuerden, director of transport research and consultancy firm TRL (Transport Research Laboratory).
“While we are going to have automated vehicles, they may well end up not quite as capable as we first imagined,” he said. “We could end up with two kinds: a vehicle with a steering wheel that can do most of the driving for us but still needs a human to navigate a twisting country road, and a version without a steering wheel that just follows set routes that it knows very well. We may never get to a place where we have an automated vehicle that can do everything that you and I can do as drivers.”
Rocky road: The challenge of self-driving cars
Despite being one of the most hyped technologies of the past decade, it’s clear that self-driving vehicles still represent a major challenge to manufacturers, insurers, lawmakers and governments worldwide.
Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car arm and now its own business under parent company Alphabet, became the first autonomous ride-hailing service to operate free from any safety driver in November 2019. However, it operates only in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, demonstrating how the fleet is capable of driving in familiar surroundings but is not quite ready for unknown terrain, and is also yet to turn a profit.
Not every tech giant has stuck it out. Uber, an early major champion of driverless cars, sold its autonomous vehicle business to start-up Aurora Innovations in December last year, two years after the death of Elaine Herzberg. Similarly, Uber rival Lyft sold off its own driverless unit to Toyota earlier this week.
Safety concerns also abound. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has investigated 28 incidents involving Tesla cars, the most recent involving the deaths of two men in a crash in April, in which authorities claim no one was in the driving seat. Chief executive Elon Musk claimed the car’s Autopilot driver assistance system was not engaged at the time.