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."

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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. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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