What does the future of driverless cars look like?

Prof. Nick Reed of TRL talks about adoption models, car ownership and inevitable fatalities.

Ever wondered what it’s like to ride around in a driverless car?

“Although initially it is exciting, it very quickly becomes quite mundane,” says Professor Nick Reed, Academy Director of Transport Research Laboratory (TRL). “And that is exactly how it should be.”

Though the basic car design – a box with four wheels – hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years or so, we’re in the midst of a major automobile revolution. Cheaper and better quality sensors combined with ever-improving computing ability means the prospect of self-driving vehicles is no longer science fiction, but a predetermined feature many will expect of their cars over the next ten years. From technology companies such as Google and Apple and taxi companies such as Uber and Lyft to car makers of all sizes, autonomous vehicles are already being tested on the open roads.

Founded in 1933 by the UK Government, TRL provides transport consultancy and research for both the public and private sector, and so is well-placed to witness the arrival of driverless cars. And for Reed, the most obvious reason to adopt autonomous cars is safety.

“People wanting to make calls or send text messages or use social media, these have massive effects on drivers in terms distraction,” he says. “You think about things like the big killers on our roads; fatigue and alcohol. What can help us? What can enable people to maintain their connectivity but keep them safe at the same time?

“Lots of people like to drive, and I don't think it's likely that people will be restricted from driving anytime soon, but automation gives us the opportunity to start addressing those things around human error that lead to collisions and also enables us to have that connectivity and potentially be productive.”

A variety of future ownership models from 2020

Although the timeline varies depending on who you ask, the first fully autonomous cars should be available to the masses from around 2020. Predictions around adoption, however, vary much more, with some timelines not suggesting 50% adoption for decades.

“A lot of people talk about automation being adopted at the kind of usual pace of safety systems, which is a kind of 20 year adoption curve,” Reed says.  “I think it's going to be different.

“Use cases like driverless shuttles in cities could happen quite quickly. Similarly automated driving by cars and platoons of trucks on motorways.”

While some companies are looking towards pods and new ownership models, others are focusing on more traditional cars gaining increasing levels of automation over a longer timeline. Reed predicts the two models will co-exist, with adoption rates being different for each.

“Adoption of fully automated vehicles will take longer due to the associated technical and regulatory challenges.” He predicts that although the technology will be a premium technology at first, it will trickle down to lower value vehicles and gain rapid adoption once practical.

Companies such as Google or the Lutz Pathfinder with their driverless pods have laid out visions of a shared-ownership model that would work almost like Uber; cars would drop off one person before driving off to pick up the next ride. “The amount of investment that companies like Google, Apple and Uber and Tesla are making in this suggests they see an opportunity and think they see demand being driven around mobility, not for having an individual vehicle,” Reed explains. “But at the same time, the likes of Ford, the likes of BMW, the likes of General Motors are recognising this and responding, and the question is can they adapt their business models to meet the challenge?

“They’ve had a hundred years of making products that people like and want to use, and selling them to individuals or as fleets, can they adapt their model where individuals aren't purchasing vehicles but they're purchasing access to mobility?”

Although there may be room for more than one ownership model, Reed sees autonomous vehicles and shared ownership as a no-brainer for urban transport. “If I can drive to my house and just let the car go off and go to the car share spot, to charge itself, be cleaned, or refilled, or whatever is it - car sharing becomes much more viable.

“This thing is around cars not being used for 95% of their life,” he adds. “We can now get much more use out of them, fewer vehicles potentially making many more trips.”

How the latest smartphones might chat to classic cars

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, suggested that actually driving cars may one day be illegal, while others have said public roads may eventually being closed to private-human-piloted vehicles. While Reed admits such a move would enable maximum capacity from the available road space, it would only make sense once the majority of cars are enabled with autonomous capabilities.

“For a long time to come there will be highways where some vehicles are automated and some aren't, and the two will have to co-exist happily together.”

While a whole fleet of AI cars can enable more efficient traffic flows and reduce the chance of collisions, the presence of an unpredictable human in the middle lane presents a hard to predict challenge. Mobile phones are cited as one way to aid Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communication, essentially broadcasting to the cars on the road that this one is being driven by a human, and to react accordingly.

“So even if you've got an old classic car, your smartphone can act as the V2V communications node to make your vehicle now compatible with an automated highway where the majority of vehicles are automated.”

Why it is crucial for safety professionals to learn from future accidents  

One headline we’re yet to see is one where a driverless car hits a person while on “autopilot” mode. Google has been very open about any incidents involving its autonomous vehicles, and so far there’s been nothing more severe than some (human-culpable) fender benders. “It is going to happen, and it is going to be massive.

“The fact the Google and the Delphi cars were [in the] same street together was a news story not so long ago, so when there is a serious collision or a collision involving serious injury, it is going to be big news.”

So what’s the answer? Essentially it’s a case of getting the right messaging across and the trade-off. Reed suggests the number of collisions on the road could be reduced by up to 90%, but just as companies will need to be ready for the first driverless fatality, they have to prepare to answer questions about collisions that probably wouldn’t have happened under vehicles controlled by humans.

When it comes to the idea of crashing, some experts in the field feel discussing the idea of a Self-Driving Trolley Problem – essentially predetermining what a car should be programmed to do in the event of unavoidable crash – is unhelpful and the car should instead simply be programmed to stop. Reed, however, disagrees. “If we programme cars simply to stop we will see collisions that could otherwise have been avoided were the vehicle capable of taking other actions.

“What we need to do is to collect, analyse and interpret the data recorded by automated vehicles to understand their behaviour and whether they acted in an appropriate manner in the event of a collision. This will enable liability to be determined and, through software updates, other vehicles can be optimised from the experiences of others.”

The final piece in the puzzle of course is the human factor. Reed might have found being driven around by algorithms perfectly mundane, but what about the public at large? “My experience of this is that there is a degree of caution, some reticence almost about using automated vehicles, but once [the] people overcome that hurdle and give it a try, it flips the other way and the issue becomes over trust.”

Videos of people abusing the Tesla Autopilot system despite warnings from the company are common on YouTube, something Reed credits to the predictability of the car’s behaviours. “People very quickly become used to the system, and suddenly being able to make use of that becomes very valuable.”


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