The notion of a driverless fleet may seem far-fetched, but experts predict that the first autonomous cars will be on UK roads within five years.
A licensed driver will still have to be prepared to take control of the vehicle, but onboard systems will undertake large parts of the journey.
Fully-automated cars will follow and what seems like science fiction today could quickly become a reality in a relatively short space of time.
The Government has committed an initial £19 million in an effort to secure the UK’s share of what is expected to be a £900 billion industry by 2025. But, whether the driver will go the same way as the man with the red flag remains to be seen.
Paula Marie Brown from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) explains: “Driverless vehicles have huge potential to transform the UK’s transport network. They could improve road safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions. But there are important challenges to address before these cars can be mainstream on our roads.”
A sceptical public will need to be convinced, for starters. Polling suggests that the technology has so far failed to capture people’s imagination. In a recent survey, commissioned by the IET, only a quarter of men, and less than a fifth of women, said they would definitely consider using a driverless car.
It followed a Fleet News poll that showed almost three-quarters (71.6%) of respondents would not run an autonomous car on their fleet.
A surprising result, considering the technology could potentially cut CO2 emissions, fuel costs and at-fault incidents for thousands of companies.
Experts suggest a lack of trust in the technology is the cause, which is understandable given its infancy.
However, company car and van drivers have been using autonomous features for several years. The majority of new cars are fitted with anti-lock braking systems (ABS), which allow sensors to release the brakes momentarily – despite the driver’s actions – preventing the wheels from locking.
Electronic stability control (ESC), which applies the brakes on one wheel at a time to improve cornering, is becoming more commonplace and recent developments such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) give the vehicle the ability to apply the brakes, without driver intervention, if an obstacle is detected ahead.
Cars are also now entering the fleet that can maintain their position within the white lines on a motorway and steer into the tightest parking spot, without the driver lifting a finger.
The success of autonomous cars does not simply rest on winning the hearts and minds of company car drivers. It will require road traffic legislation to be overhauled, the Highway Code to be rewritten and questions over who or what would be liable in the event of an accident answered.
Everything from driving licences to vehicle design will have to be re-evaluated, with the Government officially beginning that process last month.
The Department for Transport (DfT) gave the green light to the first public trials of driverless cars in February after a review of regulations concluded there was “no barrier to testing driverless technology on UK roads”.
Trials of autonomous vehicles have been approved in Bristol, Coventry, Milton Keynes and Greenwich as part of the £19m programme. On-road testing will feature real-world evaluation of passenger cars with increasing levels of autonomy, and the development and evaluation of lightweight, fully-autonomous self-driving pods for pedestrianised spaces.
They will include public tests of fully automated passenger shuttle transport systems and autonomous valet parking of adapted cars. The DfT says the trials will also investigate the legal and insurance aspects of driverless cars and explore public reactions.
RAC spokesman Simon Williams says: “The Government would do well to produce a green paper or substantial weight of research that explains in detail the benefits to the public of the new technology, and a framework for a phased introduction beyond trials. That way motorists could get a much clearer sense of what a driverless future could look like.”
- A new report from the University of Michigan in America claims that autonomous cars could actually worsen accident rates during the long transition period when driverless and driver-controlled vehicles will share the roads. To find out more, go to fleetnews.co.uk/autonomous-safety