Comment: The road to a fully automated future
Mike Brown, director of industry collaboration & partnerships (environments & engineering) from the University of Salford, explores the current barriers to rolling out autonomous vehicles in the UK.
There’s no doubt that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are going to change the way that freight and business fleets operate in the future. However, what remains unclear is the timeframe in which this technology will be implemented at scale, with current trials yielding mixed results over the safety and reliability of this nascent technology. The UK in particular, has several obstacles to overcome before this achieved.
Implementing legislation and regulation
This is possibly the most pressing and challenging area in the UK. At present, the DVLA is unable to register a purpose-built high automation CAV (connected and autonomous vehicle) at Level 4 or above, even as a prototype vehicle. However, the rate of development of CAV technology is well ahead of current UK regulation and legislation, and it must therefore be a priority for the future Government to make significant policy development if the UK wishes to be at the forefront of future CAV deployment.
As legislation cannot be properly formalised until further testing is successfully completed, one approach would be to implement a ‘regulatory sandbox’. This would involve a defined area of roads where legislation is adapted to support the deployment of CAVs whilst providing policy-makers and manufacturers with the essential feedback to support the introduction of this technology.
Understanding UK roads
To date, most trials have been conducted in the USA, where driving conditions are vastly different to ours. UK fleet managers will have taken encouragement from the announcement this October about the first trial of AVs on British public roads.
As such trials progress across the UK, we need to also factor in variables such as poor road surfaces or extreme weather conditions to understand how CAV technology will react to these circumstances. We know that LiDAR technology doesn’t function well in heavy rain, and if we add factors such as complex road geometry or faded/poor road markings, current CAV technology would struggle to function.
Early-stage trials will likely be deployed on less complicated and more environmentally predictable routes, but to achieve full adoption, we need to better understand how these vehicles will react to more complex, unpredictable scenarios.
To solve the issue of congestion, we also need to look at the first-mile and last-mile solutions which underpin any integrated transport system. The recently launched StreetWise project, led by Transport for London and partners, looks at ridesharing using a converted family car; a step in the right direction. But, to solve this issue, projects like these must also consider the use of purpose-built shuttle-type vehicles that can accommodate 12-15 passengers. Rather than adapting current vehicles, this initiative could significantly reduce congestion and overall transport emissions across urban areas.
Understanding a human-CAV environment
Further research is also required into how AVs will behave and interact around human drivers to ensure safety on UK roads. Assuming that AVs, in the early stages of adoption, will share roads with manually driven vehicles, more research is required into how CAVs will react to human drivers. This includes everything from a headlight flash to hand gestures, and managing the minimum gap to the vehicle in front when human drivers take advantage and push in.
Again, these factors are not typically considered at depth at testing facilities, but from a safety and legal perspective, we need a better understanding of how, or if, CAVs will respond to these signals to avoid confusion and potential collisions.
From the view of insurers, we must consider the protocol in the event that a collision occurs between an ordinary vehicle and a CAV. Based on telemetry data, the CAV will be able to produce stacks of data relating to the incident. However, questions remain around the accuracy of this data and how third parties will interpret it. For example, who will be liable if a fault in the CAV’s software or one sensor causes the collision – will it be the CAV operator’s insurance provider or the vehicle’s manufacturer?
All these issues illustrate the complexity and challenge of rolling out AVs amongst UK fleets at scale. To achieve this, all stakeholders must continue on our current trajectory to ensure that suitable trials, legislation and regulation are in place so solutions meet the safety and reliability requirements for fleets across the country.
There’s a very exciting future ahead of us, we must ensure the UK doesn’t lag behind.