Hardware

The driverless car edges closer to becoming a reality

A look at the possible future of autonomous vehicles as the UK gives the go-ahead for trials of computer-controlled cars on public roads.

Self-driving cars are on their way, and while they might not be sitting in your yard in the near future, they may soon be your taxi ride.

Driverless cars will take to the road in three UK cities from January next year as part of government-funded trials of autonomous vehicles.

For Tim Edwards, principal engineer in the future transport technologies group for automotive consultancy group Mira, the announcement is a small but important step towards getting driverless cars on the roads.

"What it's about at this stage is moving from the controlled-test track and putting vehicles on the road. It's still going to be quite a long development before you start to see these cars really accessible to the public," he said.

Edwards doesn't think the next stop is everyone owning an self-driving car, but instead sees these computer-controlled vehicles beginning to crop up as local taxis - perhaps restricted to areas where there is infrastructure with which they can wirelessly communicate to guide them through the environment.

"It's very unlikely that you'll be able to go and buy your own driverless car in the next 10 years, but what I think you will experience in that timeframe is using some driverless vehicles for part of your journey. Maybe just a connection from an airport to a train station, for example. You will start to use driverless cars in that time as a transport system, rather than seek to replace your personal car with it."

Others believe that as the benefits of self-driving cars become more apparent they could help affect a shift from vehicle ownership to rental, particularly in metropolitan areas. The price of hiring these self-driving vehicles could be offset by new business models: by advertisers paying car rental companies for data on where and when people travelled, to build more detailed customer profiles; through brick-and-mortar businesses subsidising journeys to their premises and by travellers splitting costs through ridesharing services like Uber. If the cost of hiring autonomous vehicles drops far enough, then paying per journey may eventually seem preferable to the expense and hassle of running a car.

"There's so much changing that the way we use our cars is going to be different and these new business models will emerge," said Edwards.

"My personal bet would be on using these like a car sharing scheme - with a pay-as-you-go model or pay by the month to get access to these vehicles when you need them."

mira-driverless-car.png
One of Mira's self-driving cars that was demonstrated today.
 Image: Mira
Cities in the UK that wish to host one of these trials of self-driving vehicles must pitch to government, which is now accepting bids for a share of the £10m that has been set aside to fund the pilot projects. Each project is expected to last between 18 and 36 months and will start in January 2015.

Ahead of the trials, the UK government is reviewing vehicle driving and testing regulations to establish what changes, if any, are needed to allow the trials to take place.

The review will consider how two types of driverless technology should be regulated: fully autonomous cars and self-driving vehicles where a human driver can take over.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills was unable to say if regulatory changes resulting from the review would result in driverless cars being permissible on all public roads in the UK, or only within the trial cities.

However the UK is hardly blazing a trail by announcing these trials. The US state of Nevada passed a law allowing autonomous vehicles to operate on its roads back in 2011, and Germany, the Netherlands and Spain have allowed the testing of robotic cars in traffic.

UK business secretary Vince Cable today forecast the tests would help attract investment from businesses developing autonomous cars to the UK, while transport minister Claire Perry predicted driverless cars could help improve road safety and congestion, as well as lowering emissions.

Numerous car manufacturers and technology companies have self-driving vehicles in the works. Google's prototype autonomous car has clocked up more than 300,000 miles and car makers Nissan and General Motors both plan to release self-driving vehicles by 2020.

Chinese technology giant Baidu is also testing a computer-controlled car where a human driver would be able to take over, unlike Google's vehicle, which dispenses with the steering wheel and pedals.

Mira's Edwards said a fully autonomous vehicle could rely on a mix of radar, cameras and laser scanners to map its environment, GPS to track its location and wireless communications with other cars and roadside infrastructure to fill out the picture of where it is.

In the short term, however, drivers' groups are unconvinced that people will want to give up driving their own cars.

"Many drivers are still resistant to change as 65 per cent [of the AA's members] enjoy driving too much to ever want the vehicle to take over from them," said AA president Edmund King.

"Cars have become more automated. However, there needs to be a big leap of faith by drivers from embracing assistance systems to accepting the fully automated car."

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

9 comments
Imp Press
Imp Press

Definitely going to happen.

It would be the end of "Mom, can you drive Debbie, Allison, and me to the mall?" 


Also, TRUCKERS. Imagine semis rolling down the highway, patiently doing a fuel-efficient 50 mph to save fuel costs because the robot doesn't charge extra for the driving time. 


Imagine a robot that can spot deer with infra red vision. The insurance costs will almost guarantee that driverless cars will be everywhere but remote locations and the times peopel DO drive will be awful. They'll be really bad at it from lack of practice.


Economics will force this to happen.

It should have been done for subways and trains five years ago but unions would never let that happen. What's easier than watching a road with no traffic on it? (rails). Only human stubbornness stands in the way and money will go from talking to screaming. Driving will be an unusual event except for professionals expected to navigate roads with rapidly changing conditions or where the route is unpredictable.


It'll be gradual enough that all the doubters will end up shrugging and see it as the most natural thing in the world.

Cheer up folks. The next step is adapting the systems that keep us safe on roads to systems that keep us safe in teh air with Mioller skycar taxis. 350mph cruising speed to the airport and Virgin Galactic shuttles to Tokyo.


You don't WANT to oppose this.


T-Wrench
T-Wrench

@Imp Press 

Sorry but I disagree on some of your "points"

1st up, Truckers usually have to go faster than 50mph, because of business schedules, and deadlines to meet. And all it takes is one little fender bender down the road to screw them over, and have to wait for it to clear.

Kids that are not old enough to drive, esp. girls, are not going to have a parent let them go to the "mall" unsupervised, so a parent will usually take them.

Also, there are quite a few people that drive very well, and usually when they're in an accident, it was unavoidable.

And finally, from your comment, you obviously live in the city, as where I live, more times than not there are deer, moose, raccoons, etc on both sides of the road. What's a driverless car going to do, stop and wait for an animal to possibly cross the road.

Wow, just wow....and I prefer to drive myself, I like driving, and when I got my license, it was a privilege, not a right, that you earned.... 

kirk_augustin
kirk_augustin

Absolutely never going to happen.  While it is possible to make an autonomous car that is safer than one with a human driver, not only is no one going to ever believe that, but no one is going to want to pay for not only the initial expense, but the horrendously expensive upkeep.  Driverless cars would need at least monthly testing.  And all you would need is for a child to get run over, and the law suits would result in billions being awarded.  Ordinary drivers would hate driverless cars so much that they would intentionally run them off the road for sport.  Whoever came up with driverless cars for public roads, is certifiably insane.  It would be a total disaster.

digital riverrat
digital riverrat

I see future highways with three "classes" of lanes. 

The far left will be for driverless cars.

The middle will be for carpools.

The far right will be for single drivers.

Dwight Draves
Dwight Draves

California already legalized Google’s self driving car.... this is old news.....

kirk_augustin
kirk_augustin

California has only legalized test vehicles when there is no other traffic and the autonomous car is flanked by observation vehicles.  They are not allowed on the road by themselves, and never will be.

It is only a test.

Shawn Quinn
Shawn Quinn

Only the bad drivers should have to use autopilots

dlindner999
dlindner999

That'll work great, since over 80% of people think they're above-average drivers.

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