16th April 2019
Are fully-autonomous vehicles really likely to feature on public roads soon?
It’s fair to say that various facets of autonomous or ‘driverless’ cars and other vehicles, from their capabilities to the time-scales involved in consumer availability, continue to cause a degree of confusion, which is in many ways no surprise.
Is semi-autonomous technology misunderstood?
Firstly, with systems1 like Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot and BMW’s Traffic Jam Assist taking care of the drudgery of slow-moving traffic queues, and Mercedes’ Drive Pilot and Volvo’s Pilot Assist essentially taking over human processes even more comprehensively in countries where such systems can be used freely, unlike in the UK, some motorists have understandably been left with the impression that more premium cars are already ‘driverless’.
Even relatively more simple advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as widespread adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping technologies are often perceived as ‘driverless’, as shown by a Euro NCAP and Thatcham survey2 last year in which 71% of drivers showed a lack of understanding.
Trak Global Group has previously commented in the media3 on the danger of over-reliance on such systems until they are further tested and enhanced.
Volvo is an OEM synonymous with safety and aiming high
We feel the public are gauging things quite well when it comes to identifying OEMs and other companies that they perceive as more trustworthy in the race to perfect truly autonomous vehicles (AVs), with a DriveTribe poll4 of 2,520 respondents finding that Volvo has won many motorists’ confidence – and rightly so. The Swedish marque’s Vision 2020 plan5 aims to eradicate Volvo-related injuries and fatalities by next year, will involve limiting the top speed of all its new cars to 112mph as announced recently6, and Volvo has also offered to share7 sixty years’ worth of its safety data for the good of everyone, which are all laudable steps.
Media headlines are largely essentially true but missing a key detail
From the start of 2019, a wave of headlines has continued to be published off and online similar to the Telegraph’s which, in early February, read: ‘Driverless cars to be on Britain’s roads by the end of the year, government reveals’8. It’s unsurprising that many people, despite being unable to afford such technologically-advanced autonomous vehicles, perceive them to be an imminent arrival.
In reality, what might indeed materialise by the end of this year is that driverless cars may be legally tested in a growing number of localities without a human safety driver sat inside, which is a significant stride in its own right, but it doesn’t mean that consumers who can afford such vehicles will be driven around in them any time soon. Wired9 even asserted that the DfT doesn’t actually know for certain whether such tests, justifiably perceived by some as risky, will take place this year. Their article attributed exaggerated headlines to over-enthusiasm on the government’s part and quite rightly pointed out that, while the technology may not be far off viable in the real world, legislation will likely take considerable time to catch up.
The tests earmarked by FiveAI for the London boroughs of Bromley and Croydon in 2020 are an exciting prospect9a based on a perhaps more achievable time-frame, but these trials will admittedly still entail human safety drivers being present and ready to resume control if necessary.
Legislation and technology are key AV enablers
Law Times News10 echoes the view that the pace of the motor insurance industry’s evolution to facilitate driverless vehicles will significantly determine how quickly they develop and become a reality. Citing a report by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the article calls for a fresh approach, for insurance policies to reflect advances in technology and to cover driver negligence, and for countries’ laws to address in fine detail the current ambiguities between human and computer error.
Otherwise, Robert Love who heads Canadian firm Borden Ladner Gervais LLP’s autonomous vehicle practice group envisages protracted and costly arguments prevailing. Charles Gluckstein, a Toronto lawyer, believes that OEMs will need holding to account when driverless cars are introduced, which will herald irreversible changes to Canada’s roads and also to related sectors including insurance, with a sharp reduction in claims anticipated.
With technology instrumentally driving autonomous vehicle development forwards, Parna Sabet-Stephenson, another law partner from the Canadian capital, points to the need for specialist legal experts with in-depth knowledge and understanding over technology in the automotive space as pivotal in ensuring that the unparalleled shift in society is managed properly and smoothly.
5G a vital ingredient
With everything from cars and phones to buildings and even road furniture such as traffic lights and road signs rapidly becoming connected, the UK undeniably needs equipping with the latest and fastest communications network possible as society edges closer to autonomous vehicles.
In June, Bedfordshire will benefit from the activation of O2’s 5G network as part of the provider’s collaboration with the revered proving ground at Millbrook where the SMMT and other automotive organisations hold numerous events each year. The project lends support to the AutoAir testbed backed by the government11 and O2 plans to roll 5G out to Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London throughout 2019.
The track and facilities along with 5G will be made available to a wide range of businesses including Five.AI and Oxbotica who wish to test their driverless vehicles there – and previous trials over the transmission of high-definition video data and telemetry courtesy of a 160mph McLaren driving around Millbrook proved positive, boding well for the wider tests commencing shortly12.
O2’s CTO described 5G as a “massive step change” that will be revolutionary, and we’re certainly in agreement with these comments, ‘big data’ and all manner of rea-time monitoring technology such an intrinsic part of driverless vehicle development.
AVs and high-speed driving
It’s all very well extolling AVs in terms of their anticipated eradication of accidents and congestion, but it would be frustrating if society simultaneously slowed down because such driverless vehicles weren’t advanced enough to be able to corner at high speeds. It’s therefore reassuring that pioneers at California’s Stanford University13 have used artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms based on human neural networks to enable an autonomous Volkswagen GTI to drive as fast as possible within the limits of its tyres and the confines of the road’s topography, camber and curvatures, without significantly deviating from the desired path.
Autonomous buses trialled for future public transport
Autonomy will also encompass commercial vehicles and public transport, and it’s encouraging and exciting that March saw Stagecoach trial a full-size driverless bus at its Manchester depot, the vehicle unsurprisingly equipped with a number of sensors spanning optical, ultrasound and radar14. The well-known bus operating company promotes itself as a disruptor and plans to test the same software that it used in Manchester in further pilot schemes across Scotland in 2020. We agree that better protecting cyclists and pedestrians that enter buses’ blind spots will certainly be a very positive benefit when autonomous vehicles like this eventually enter routine service.
Autonomous trucks address driver shortage
The proliferation in online shopping places a demand on retailers to move and deliver their goods as swiftly and economically as possible, but their business models have been threatened by market forces, the International Road Transport Union pointing to 40% of vacancies remaining unfilled across Europe15, partly attributed to long hours and relatively modest salaries. Over the last year or so, headlines have alluded to a truck driver shortage across the U.S, too, but interestingly an increasing number of voices are calling such reports fake news, based partially on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest report16, which said in conclusion that “a deeper look does not find evidence of a secular shortage.”
Whatever the reality, it’s highly likely that commercial vehicles will be introduced on public roads by retailers and other organisations as soon as legally and practicably feasible, with bottom lines somewhat in mind. After all, autonomous vehicles are already in use on private land and in other places, by various armies and mining operations, for example, and in factories such as Jaguar Land Rover’s site in Coventry, where a firm called Brose has introduced automated guidance vehicles (AGVs) to make logistics more automated and hence efficient17.
California18 has just passed a rule allowing the trialling of light-duty commercial driverless trucks, primarily involved in delivery activities, on public highways – but such autonomous vehicles will be limited to 10,001 pounds (approximately 4.5 tonnes) in weight. Although restricting testing to what would be called ‘vans’ and pickups in the UK precludes HGVs or other heavy-duty lorries, it’s still an unarguably positive step forwards, and we feel it dovetails with the parallel development of ‘last-mile’ mobility solutions being devised such as Ford’s warehouse on wheels concept in collaboration with Gnewt by Menzies in the UK.
Challenges and other autonomous vehicle considerations
It’s been well documented that fatalities have occurred involving autonomous vehicles, examples being Elaine Herzberg who was struck by a Volvo XC90 Uber test car19, and the driver of a Tesla Model X set to Autopilot mode who was killed after the car crashed into a concrete barrier20. Uber was found ‘not criminally liable’, though, and it’s fair to say that autonomous cars like these continue to accrue millions of miles of testing involving ‘tens of thousands of passengers’21, and driverless vehicles are widely perceived as inherently safe.
However, despite regarding self-driving technology as “the best lifesaver in the history of the car”, Volvo’s chief executive22 Hakan Samuelsson believes that prematurely launching autonomous vehicles before they are proven to be sufficiently safe would erode public and regulatory trust and could even kill the technology. His assertions seem reasonable and well-argued.
Veoneer, a leading manufacturer of radars, cameras and other in-car safety technology in Sweden23 perceives the delay in driverless cars as something that will boost its market position and demand for its products after the EU announced plans to mandate various advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). This view could be perceived as logical at a time when a wide range of passenger cars are advancing from level 1 to level 3 autonomy and beyond.
Ford CEO Jim Hackett’s opinion24 that the automotive industry has “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles” and that their real-world abilities and use will be restricted to geo-fenced scenarios is palpable, and genuinely ‘driverless’ vehicles being sold to consumers does indeed feel like a “stretch”, with even Nissan now seeming sceptical over cars operating without any human input despite the Japanese brand’s considerable efforts to date.
Is the insurance sector fully ready and do the public want AVs?
The UK may indeed be the prime location25 to support autonomous vehicles, as identified by SMMT analysis, but it could be argued that this demonstrates domestic bias, and so many facets from the Highway Code and other driving laws and regulations to physical road layouts and motor insurance models will all need reshaping, which will undeniably result in a degree of upheaval for a time. It’s ironic that in the U.S, where driverless cars have been tested for longer, legal frameworks are less advanced than in the UK, where parliament has passed the Automated and Electric Vehicles (AEV) Act.
Mandating two separate insurance policies to account for when a human driver is in control and when the vehicle is in control of itself would indeed be too complicated26, so a single, combined policy certainly would make the most sense. It’s envisaged that insurance companies will increasingly recoup a percentage of their costs when OEMs’ autonomous technologies contribute to accidents. As AVs make our roads safer, claims will reduce, meaning additional likely changes to the insurance landscape.
Tesla seems especially keen to introduce as many new autonomous systems as possible ‘while others are slowing down’27, but a Reuters-Ipsos poll recently found that half of the adults it surveyed in America don’t trust self-driving cars, while around 66% don’t have the appetite to pay inflated forecourt or lease prices in order to obtain such technology. It’s reasonable to argue that Tesla and others could indeed be pushing systems that only a minority of drivers actually desire or will use with any regularity.
Fascinatingly, researchers from Leeds University went to Bangladesh to gauge sentiments over how drivers there would use the extra time afforded to them when fully driverless cars are a reality. In a country where chauffeuring is common, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the majority of respondents picture themselves relaxing, reading and perhaps sleeping while inside AVs. Conversely, though, over 25% foresee themselves still watching the road, perhaps indicating an element of lingering mistrust.
Motor shows, press releases and other corners of the media continue to be awash with announcements over driverless vehicles, but it’s evident that traditional OEMs are becoming increasingly cautious and realistic, and it’s unarguable that many facets from insurance and infrastructure to affordability and public perception have a long way to go before AVs become a reality. The technology is almost certainly nearly there but it seems likely that level 3 semi-autonomy will remain the norm for the foreseeable future, which itself presents advantages and disadvantages. Currently, driverless cars seem so near yet so far.
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