The driverless car race: where does the UK place?

An overgrown golf buggy trundled along the Greenwich peninsula last month, reaching heady heights of 13mph as it passed the O2. Several bystanders deigned the spectacle worthy enough to avert their attention from their phone screens. Briefly.

Business secretary Vince Cable, hardly troubled by a crowd as he alighted from the vehicle, pronounced it the future of transport to anyone who would listen. Transport minister Claire Perry called it “incredibly exciting”.

And it is. Despite the lack of fanfare and fireworks, trials of the first fully autonomous shuttle in Greenwich, along with the union jack liveried pod prototype set to get a run out in Milton Keynes, signify a small but significant step towards a safer, less-congested, driverless future. They also signify a commitment by the UK government, backed to the tune of £19m, to put the country at the forefront of automotive technology.

But just how advanced is this technology at present, and where does the UK place in the wider driverless car picture?

UNITED KINGDOM

On 11 February the driverless car industry was given the green light for testing on public roads, with the UK’s regulatory environment now setting it apart as a premium location for developing new technology.

The pilots in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry will see three prototype vehicles put through their paces.

Meridian Shuttle

More milk float than Minority Report, the Meridian Shuttle is billed as a ‘first-mile, last-mile’ solution, aimed at ferrying passengers around campuses, industrial parks and hospitals.

Atop its miniature wheels is a near-silent electric motor, raised roof, exposed sides, and room for about eight people to sit (although, capped at 13mph, they can safely stand).

Capable of 60 miles per charge, it finds its way using lidar (a light-based equivalent of radar), with sensors scanning the road 25 times a second with a 200m range, analysing size, distance and speed of encroaching objects to identify pedestrians, cyclists and other cars before deciding whether safe to proceed.

Lutz Pathfinder

An electric two-seater pod made in Coventry and emblazoned with union jack decals, the Lutz (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone) Pathfinder (pictured) is capable of 40 miles on a single charge, with a top speed of 15mph.

Destined for pedestrianised spaces rather than the open road, it nonetheless packs some serious hardware, with 22 sensors built by Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group giving it a 360-degree view of the world around it.

Designed and built by Coventry-based engineering firm RDM Group, the first production models should be completed by June and trialled in the urban laboratory of Milton Keynes.

BAE-modified Bowler Wildcat

A Bowler modified Land Rover converted by BAE Systems, the Wildcat is being put through its paces by the Venturer Consortium.

The group will explore the feasibility of driverless cars on private and public roads in the UK, while tests will also look at the legal and insurance aspects as well as public reaction. Trials are scheduled to begin in Bristol in early 2016 and run for 36 months.

More pragmatic than pretty, the off-road vehicle is built to stand up to rigorous testing rather than stand out in a showroom, and is already fully autonomous. Equipped with sensors, lidars, computers and processors, the vehicle has been created with tinkering in mind and its configuration could be completely different in 12 months’ time.

UNITED STATES

While pilots in the UK will for the most part be confined to footpaths and other spaces shared with pedestrians, tests have already been carried out on public roads in Japan, Singapore, Germany and, of course, the US.

Google has been trialling driverless cars for years and has played no small part in four states passing legislation allowing for driverless vehicle testing on their highways (indeed the bill to bring driverless cars to California’s roads was signed at Google’s HQ).

The search giant’s driverless endeavours started out in 2008, with vehicles from Lexus and Toyota modified with its proprietary technology, and then last year with a fully functional prototype built from scratch, with toy-like looks and notable features including foam and a soft windshield aimed at easing fears around robot cars and potential collisions.

And while the robot cars boasts around $150,000 of equipment, including a lidar system with a Velodyne 64-beam laser range finder, its not all about hardware and soft windshields. Google’s unrivalled mapping software will likely prove key in its battle for dominance.

Elsewhere in the US, Uber has announced it is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to develop autonomous vehicles while Apple is also rumoured to be joining the driverless car race, hiring a team of car tech and design engineers (unsurprisingly little has been confirmed on this, and going by past form little will be until 100 per cent complete).

REST OF EUROPE

The German auto industry has been working on self-driving cars for some time, but now the country’s traffic ministry is set to give the go-ahead for prototypes to be tested on a stretch of the busy Autobahn which links Munich and Berlin.

The test section will be digitised to allow vehicle to vehicle and road to vehicle communication, with the adapted infrastructure offering opportunities to gather and measure data to help with optimisation.

From German carmakers we have already seen the Future Truck 2025 from Mercedes-Benz – a self-driving truck capable of 50mph on highways – while Audi has claimed its 560-horsepower RS7, sans driver, came close to 150mph on Germany’s Hockenheim grand prix track. The Mercedes F015 self-driving concept car, with its smooth, streamlined looks, touchscreen interior and swivelling chairs, also stole the show at this year’s CES in Las Vegas.

The recent Autobahn testing announcement comes as the industry and government in Germany looks to remain at the forefront of the industry and achieve what traffic minister Alexander Dobrindt calls “digital sovereignty” independent from Google or other competing technologies.

Elsewhere in Europe, France has approved testing on public roads, announcing access to 2,000km of open roads around Bordeaux, Isère, Île-de-France and Strasbourg to help manufacturers develop their vehicles more rapidly. Gothenburg, meanwhile, has approved tests to start in 2017.

ASIA

In September 2013, Nissan began testing driverless cars on Japan’s highways after being issued an official license plate from the government – a nod from prime minister ShinzoōAbe who has pledged to help advance the technology by encouraging development and investment. Abe has been driven around the country’s capital in autonomous vehicles from Nissan, Toyota and Honda, telling reporters “I felt with my body that the Japanese technology is the world’s best”.

The country has also played host to tests involving a caravan of four trucks, the front of which is driven by a human. The robot-trucks kept shorter distances between vehicles, reducing fuel consumption and increasing efficiency, while roof-mounted cameras, radars and cooperative adaptive cruise control helped them avoid obstacles.

Meanwhile, this month the Japanese city of Suzu commences trials of self-driving vehicles on public roads. Running until 2020, the designated four mile route will witness the country’s first extensive tests on roads used by other cars.

Japan isn’t Asia’s only player when it comes to driverless cars, however, with the city-state of Singapore set to open one of its neighbourhoods to driverless cars in autumn. The ride sharing service will ferry people short distances at low speeds, linking up other modes of public transport, with the aim of reducing bottlenecking as the city is redeveloped around walking, cycling and public transit.

In China meanwhile, Baidu has announced it has a driverless car in the “very early stage” of development. The search engine giant also revealed that it has partnered with BMW to provide detailed data on roads and traffic as the German carmaker tests its autonomous vehicles in major Chinese cities.

This piece first appeared in the 18 March issue of The Drum. To buy a copy or to start subscribing go to The Drum Store.

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