Facing Up the Driverless Car Barriers

Over the next decade connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) are expected to generate millions of dollars for the global economy.

At least, that’s what’s currently predicted by many people in the industry. Yet the expectation that they will be on our roads next year in 2021 is considered to be too optimistic with human drivers still seen at the steering wheel of most vehicles. Daphne Leprince-Ringuet writes in her March 2020 article for CNET, For self-driving cars, winter is coming, and its introduction says: “We’ve been promised connected and autonomous cars for several years but the delivery date seems to be ever-further in the future.” She points out that despite big promises “drivers are still very much to be found at the steering wheels of the cars currently roaming the streets around us.”

Beyond the hype

So, what is the reality beyond the hype? Steve New, associate professor in operations management at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, thinks much of what’s happening depends on how you define the terms ‘fully autonomous’ and ‘road’.

He explains: “If the first means something you can jump into, punch in a postcode or say ‘take me to Auntie Mabel’s house’ and then sit back and read a novel, and ‘road’ means normal roads… then we’re many, many years away. I’d guess a decade at least and probably more. Maybe not at all.

“The reason is that the pure ‘robotics’ issues are only part of the puzzle. There are humongous issues to be addressed alongside the technical challenges: infrastructure, insurance, testing, and the environmental cost (the environmental cloud computing costs to run the vehicles are not negligible). These are issues that proceed at a slower pace than technical development, so I think the timelines often discussed in the media (e.g. the Zenzic roadmap) are rather heroic. These issues also, necessarily, will need to be resolved mostly at an international level and so there’s a lot of politics to get through too.”

Success stories

Yet there are signs of autonomous success stories, such as the experimental public transport pods that are trundling around at low speeds in Milton Keynes. He thinks they might arrive quite quickly.

However, he underlines that a substantive roll-out of what people consider to be autonomous vehicles is much more distant a prospect. “There’s a similar gigantic leap from a car trundling along in a relatively empty and calm motorway, to coping with complex traffic conditions, erratic pedestrians, bad weather, poor light and roadworks,” he stresses.

Autonomous road trials

Yuan Zhang, associate director, mobility 2030 at KPMG adds: “Basically, if we take a fully autonomous vehicle as Level 4 (i.e. operates in limited conditions with no driver intervention), you will most likely see those vehicles on UK public roads in trials only. There will be an autonomous bus crossing the Forth Road Bridge in 2020 for example.” Yet this raises the question of whether there are going to be any commercial autonomous vehicle services in place outside of a testing environment.

“I would not expect to see a fully autonomous vehicle that’s licensed and regulated (for public road use) for at least another couple of years,” he says. The delays are being caused by such factors as the time it is taking to review and define the regulations. He explains: “There is a 3-year review of regulations pertaining to the autonomous vehicles, which started in 2019 and it’s due to finish in 2021. It is being conducted by the Law Commission.

“That’s going to come up with a set of policy recommendations about which laws need to be change, which will take time. There will be some recommendations about how to license and to regulate autonomous vehicles. There will need to be some sort of process to test and award ‘driving licences’ for them, showing that they are safe to operate on public roads.”

The review finishes in 2021, so there will be a need for legislation and the development of a testing regime. He predicts that people will see CAVs appearing on our roads between 2023 and 2024. Some might view this as being optimistic though, and he suggests much depends on being able to come up with an appropriate legislative and testing regime.

Customer acceptance

Another obstacle is customer sentiment. The public’s acceptance and perceived view of the safety of autonomous vehicles is currently a hindrance. High profile accidents, such as the Tesla Autopilot incidents have raised concerns about how safe they are to ‘drive’. At the time of the accidents the Level 2 system was engaged but the drivers were either not paying attention or they weren’t ready to take back control of their vehicles at the crucial moment. This is very much the flipside of people’s expectations about CAVs. In these incidents they expected to do more than they were designed to do.

Zhang adds: “Then there was the Uber incident: a collision with a jaywalking pedestrian at night which occurred both because the car failed to recognize pedestrian and the Uber safety driver was inattentive and wasn’t able to stop the vehicle in time. These incidents, despite being isolated, attract a lot of adverse media attention for AV and will inevitably be considered by regulators, investors and companies themselves in planning their launch schedules.”

However, the number of crashes has been relatively low. Yet they are slowing down the deployment of autonomous vehicles because the overall risk appetite of these companies is low. This is turn is slowing down investment in these vehicles. The technology in many respects is there, but the complexity comes with operating commercial services (e.g. robo-taxis or deliveries) and sourcing funds for large-scale deployment and trials”, he says.

Customer education

The challenge is therefore to ensure that consumers know what they need to do when they interact with autonomous vehicles. He explains: “For example, if you are being picked up by an autonomous vehicle taxi, you will need to use an app and follow a very precise location – you can’t call the driver and tell him that you’re waving at him. There are use case kinks that need to be ironed out, and these are holding back widescale deployment.”

Autonomous momentum

So how can the CAV momentum by the industry and by governments be accelerated? New doesn’t think that it’s obvious that the momentum should be accelerated. He thinks there are more intelligent ways for governments to deal with mobility issues – and I presume that he’s thinking about autonomous cars, such as better buses and more cycling.

He also thinks that key challenges from a technological perspective is to shift to being carbon zero: “Getting people to travel round in 1.5 ton supercomputers just to avoid driving is a dumb idea. Lots of people actually like driving.” In fact, he goes further to suggest that we may never see autonomous vehicles on our roads, arguing that this falls down to “the cost and bother” being high “and the advantages [being] relatively few”.  Yet he points out that there are many cars that are already connected, and he thinks this technology will develop quite fast “but that’s a different kettle of fish to [being] autonomous”.

More investment required

Tim Kaard, manager, mobility 2030 at KPMG, has a running bet with Zhang about when people will see autonomous commercial vehicles on the streets of the UK’s cities. Zhang believes they will appear in 2025, while Kaard predicts they’ll hit the streets a couple of year’s later. Much depends on the UK investing more to keep up with the US and China.

Kaard explains:Over the past 4 years, the UK government and private companies have spent £400M in the UK to develop AV tech. In comparison, the US Government in 2016 pledged $4Bn to be spent developing AV tech over a 10-year period, not including private investment. Waymo recently raised $2.5Bn and they are spending a billion a year. The Chinese are on par, or even larger in terms of investment. So UK investment is pale in comparison. What could help is further investment by the government to help establish companies and encourage international companies to enter and develop AV tech and commercial solutions in the UK market.”

Grants for SMEs

There is also a need for grants to enable smaller companies to participate in CAV trials. Zhang says the UK government is trying to make them more accessible to SMEs. This can be achieved by making public sector application and requests for proposals (RFPs) less resource intensive and easier for smaller companies.

Zhang believes that the UK can take a lead in creating an appropriate regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles, and to that extent he cites the UK’s Autonomous and Electric Vehicle Act, which grants the government powers to regulate electric vehicle infrastructure deployment – mandating smart charging, while also addressing insurance liability uncertainties for autonomous vehicles. With this experience, the UK has in his opinion an opportunity to define the regulation for autonomous vehicles to the extent that it could form a model for the entire world.

While the UK doesn’t have a Google of its own to count on, and while the US and China are dominating the development of autonomous vehicle technology, the UK still has a significant role in developing and investing  in the technology, which could still make it a vital player – helping to shrink the forecasted winter of autonomous vehicles to make them a reality on our streets without much delay.  It’s therefore crucial to go beyond the hype to remove the obstacles to make this happen.

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