Building the Infrastructure to Suit Driverless Cars

The Caviar (Connected and Autonomous Vehicle: Infrastructure Appraisal Readiness) project is a program set up in a bid to understand the challenges connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) could face on UK motorways.

Launched by Highways England, Loughborough University and construction company  Galliford Try, it follows a report by the US road safety organization, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), which suggests that the safety benefits of self-driving vehicles are not as great as they are often touted. Highways England comments about the IIHS study: “The US study did not suggest CAVs are unsafe, it was looking at what events caused the vehicles to safely hand back control to the driver. In each case the vehicle behaved as expected by handing back responsibility to the human driver to navigate conditions that it is not programmed to control.” Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice-president for research and a co-author of the study, adds: “It’s likely that fully self-driving cars will eventually identify hazards better than people but we found that this alone would not prevent the bulk of crashes.”

However, despite claims that driver error is the cause of virtually all crashes, and that automation is therefore the way forward to prevent them, the IIHS found that autonomous vehicles might only prevent a third of all collisions if automated systems were to drive much like people.

Loughborough leads

Loughborough University leads the work on the development and validation of the simulation platform.  The trials will analyze how CAVs interact with the existing infrastructure, including roadworks and lane markings. Dynamic lane changes to different types of lanes, and digital maps, will form part of the assessment.

Professor Mohammed Quddus of the university, the principal investigator on the project, says: “Although CAVs are designed with existing infrastructure in mind, ensuring they are safe to operate on motorways will require evaluating how road layouts affects their operational boundaries such as their ability to sense lanes and make appropriate decisions.”

Handing back control

Highways England also says the first phase of the project considered desktop research, looking into the occasions when connected and autonomous vehicles handed back control to the driver to maintain safety, linked to the highway infrastructure. For this purpose, the project team accessed data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV), which it says, “requires that each CAV disengagement event is reported with information on the root cause”.

This data was chosen because CAV trials in California have been running for quite a while now, much longer than they have been in the UK.  So the CDMV already had a larger dataset available to allow the Caviar team to “understand the main infrastructure-based factors which contribute to handing back control; being lane detection, roadwork areas and merging and diverging sections”, says Highway England’s spokesperson.

The aim is to collate real-world data for use in simulation models and data will also be gathered to understand how the vehicles respond to different weather and environmental conditions – particularly to analyze their ability to detect lane markings that may not be immediately visible due to, for example, snow.

The spokesperson commented: “We plan to collect on-road data on the M6 and then feed this into an advanced simulation platform before trialing our recommendations in the real world. We believe this approach will ensure an opportunity to test and confirm any conclusions in a safe and contained environment. It is rare that research projects like this are able to complete a full data collection, simulation analysis and real-world confirmation all within one project so it’s great that we at Highways England have been able to facilitate this.

“As part of this research there maybe outcomes from certain events that will require new infrastructure, but we expect the research to help answer this question. We have found from previous trials completed, road markings and weather conditions don’t fully inhibit CAV operation. The simulation work the team are doing will give us a greater understanding of how CAVs will react under varying environments and whether new infrastructure will be required.”

Autonomous lessons

Highways England explains the objectives outlined at the beginning of the trails are currently being followed. This includes supporting CAVs to better negotiate temporary road layout modifications.

The spokesperson adds: “The teams at Galliford Try and Loughborough University have done a great job to continue work remotely despite the challenges of COVID-19. We don’t have any plans to extend this scope but there may be additional lessons or trends that we can draw from the research; these will form part of our final report and exploitation plan.”

Shaping future highways

Caviar will shape how the roads of the future work, and with the aim of maintaining what Highways England claims to be a “great safety record”. It also believes that the introduction of CAVs offers an opportunity to improve network efficiency and to reduce the amount of infrastructure required, such as large overhead gantries.

Its spokesperson explains: “For example, enabling CAVs to remain in automated features for longer, navigating modifications in road layouts and smoothing out inconsistencies in flow, therefore reducing congestion. There are currently numerous vehicles operating successfully on the network with various levels of automation, designed to operate on all road types and layouts.”

Enabling trials

To enable the trials to take place on public roads in the UK, such as the M6, it says its CAV Trials team and wider directorates are working with vehicle manufacturers, as well as with other organizations. To do this they are following industry standards, such as the Department for Transport Code of Practice.

Before they commence, trials such as those undertaken for the Caviar project, are required to complete a safety risk assessment, which is reviewed and approved by safety experts. With the help of these collaborations, Highways England believes it can continue to “design and build some of the safest roads in the world”.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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