The UK is Going Autonomous

Just a decade or so ago, the autonomous car was as distant a fantasy as H. G. Wells’s time machine. Soon potential prototypes of driverless vehicles will be plying streets of four British cities—Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol—as part of three ambitious projects intended to put the U.K. on the cutting edge of this futuristic technology

The GATEway, UK Autodrive and Venturer projects were created at the initiative of the government agency Innovate UK, which funds and connects innovative British businesses to support sustainable economic growth, and have all been partly funded by the British government. Local governments and private companies also contributed substantially. For example, of the 19.2 million British pounds earmarked for the UK Autodrive Project, 9 million pounds came from the government and the rest from industry.

The three projects will be testing a variety of self-driving vehicles and showcasing some of the cities as test-beds for the technology. They were given the go-ahead after a government review found that there were no legal impediments to having cars without human drivers in public areas and roads in the UK. One aim of the three projects is to develop a code of practice to cover the operation of driverless vehicles.

The official launch of the projects, in mid-February, comes as car manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes and Nissan move closer to putting a fully autonomous passenger car on the market and the German traffic ministry is set to open a stretch of the country’s A9 autobahn to driverless vehicles. In addition, the University of Michigan announced in January that a 32-acre simulated city center, named “M City,” will formally open in July to test how autonomous and connected vehicles respond to traffic events and road conditions.

But the UK undertaking is the most ambitious and comprehensive venture so far to bring autonomous mobility into the mainstream and, perhaps most importantly, to the attention of the general public.

Tim Armitage, project director of the UK Autodrive Project and associate director in the Advanced Technology and Research Group at Arup, which is heading the project consortium, says that making the British public understand and embrace the driverless vehicle is as important a goal of his project as is making it work.

“This project is as much about generating public acceptance as it is about the technology,” Armitage explains. “One of the things we’ll be doing is to gauge public opinion and monitor how that is changing and how they perceive the benefits and also the threats of a driverless vehicle.”

This will be no easy task, as a recent survey conducted by, a price-comparison and switching service, discovered. Published in January, the survey found that nearly half of the 953 respondents said they would not be “happy” to be a passenger in a driverless car. In addition, 43 percent said they would not trust a driverless car on a public road and 15.5 percent said they were “horrified” that driverless cars would soon be on British roads.

The UK Autodrive Project will be testing two types of self-driving vehicles: pod vehicles intended to become part of public transport systems and passenger cars provided by three car manufacturers participating in the project, Jaguar Land Rover, Ford and Tata.

Armitage views the deployment of driverless pod vehicles as “quite revolutionary,” saying that “they will be in use totally autonomously well before passenger cars.”

Produced by the RDM Group, 40 of these electric-powered vehicles will be deployed in pedestrianized zones in the cities of Milton Keynes and, to a lesser extent, Coventry in 12 to 18 months.

The pods have 360 degree peripheral vision and are programmed to look out for and react to pedestrians and cyclists. They have a top speed of 10 mph, but their actual velocity will depend on the density of the pedestrian traffic around them. During the last six months of the three-year project, the pods will be carrying members of the general public, or as Armitage puts it, “real people.”

“You’ll get to try out an autonomous pod in very controlled conditions. That will give you some confidence,” he says.

About 40 autonomous pods will be in use during the duration of the project. “This is the smallest number we could have to demonstrate what a future public transport system could look like,” Armitage explains. “In a real world, several hundred pods are more realistic.”

The pods will also be capable of traveling indoors in the future. Armitage foresees a broad range of use-cases for these vehicles, which can carry two passengers.

“They can take elderly people to the hospital when necessary and, if there is the space for them, into and through the hospital,” he says. “And they can be used at airports.”

In addition, Armitage envisages them becoming an important part of a future multimodal mobility system. “Your car will take you to a car park where there’s a space, and then a pod could take you deep into the city,” he says. “Later, you can call up a pod wherever you are and, because the city system knows where your car is parked, it will take you there.”

In fact, all the possibilities of how they can be deployed in the future still need to be defined. “We don’t quite understand the limits of their usage,” Armitage says.

The UK Autodrive’s testing with autonomous passenger cars is slated to begin in nine to 12 months and will take place on a closed road. Armitage says that members of the public will be invited to observe the testing.

“We’ll be starting off simply, with one vehicle, and get gradually more complicated, until we will have all three manufacturers’ vehicles on the road at the same time,” he says. They will also be carrying out computer simulations of how driverless vehicles interact with non-driverless vehicles.

The Venturer consortium will test BAE System’s autonomous 4×4 Bowler Wildcat on private and public roads in the city of Bristol beginning early next year and for a period of three years. It will investigate the legal and insurance aspects of autonomous cars and look into the reaction of the general public to such vehicles.

The surprising feature of the driverless vehicle to be tested in the GATEway project is that it has already been commercially available for several years, and is already in use. “But its use to date has been in less public environments,” says project head Nick Reed. “This is about putting it in a public area and seeing how it works in urban environments and how people can come to trust these systems, as well as seeing how it changes behavior and what it can mean for older or disabled people.”

Like Armitage, Reed emphasizes the importance of influencing and monitoring public opinion to the project’s mission. “We will be gauging the opinion of people not used to these vehicles, using focus groups and having people answer questionnaires,” he explains.

One of his self-driving shuttles is currently on the ground and was used in a public demonstration when the project was launched, in mid-February. While the shuttle used for this demonstration resembles an oversized golf cart, the eight shuttles to be used in trials will be more suited to the UK climate and have windows and doors. These trials will be run in the London borough of Greenwich beginning in May.

“The trials will last for a month or so,” Reed says. “Then we will continue to operate the shuttles on a less formal basis,” meaning that members of the general public will be allowed to ride on them. After the project ends, in early 2017, the shuttles may be put in use, “depending on their performance in the tests and if we find a suitable use case.”

The shuttles, which can seat up to 10 people, are electric vehicles with four lasers at each corner for a 360-degree view. The lasers enable the shuttle to “see” up to 200 meters, “know” where it is, navigate, and detect obstacles in its path, Reed says. It follows a pre-plotted route along a loop of 2 to 3 miles, with a number of stops along the way.

Passengers can input their destination via a touchscreen, but for the trials they will use an app on their smartphones. The shuttle has the flexibility to avoid a stop at which no one is waiting or wants to get off.

“Greenwich is in central London, which is the UK’s only megacity,” Reed points out. “The GATEway project has the most relevance to global megacities, such as New York, Paris or Shanghai, where urban growth presents challenges to mobility.”

The GATEway project will also be testing autonomous valet parking using two passenger cars and may eventually also test the movement of goods using an autonomous freight vehicle. These various efforts have another, overarching end, says Reed. “The long-term aim of the project is to develop the test-bed for autonomous vehicles in Greenwich, about setting it up as a testing environment.”

The goal is to attract investors, and thereby create technology jobs, and to encourage companies working in the autonomous vehicle ecosystem to use the city as a place to test products and solutions.

Potential users include “car manufacturers, systems and software suppliers and organizations that run transport services, all of whom will want to develop, test and validate system performance in a safe and suitable environment,” Reed explains. In fact, the space is now available to users, and there has been interest. “The interest we’re seeing is a validation of our approach,” he says.

There is yet another aspect to the trials, Reed says, and that is to develop the SCOOT traffic-management software so it can communicate with vehicles. He cites as an example the case of a long line of vehicles coming to a traffic light, and the light responding to the increased traffic by not switching to red when programmed.

“So, if Beijing, which uses SCOOT, puts suitably connected cars on its roads it can work there too,” says Reed, adding: “The car doesn’t need to be fully automated. It just needs to be able to communicate with the infrastructure.” He sees this vision potentially becoming a reality by 2020.

Armitage sees the projects as helping to bring about a future in which driverless cars have completely transformed our notion of mobility and our relationship with cars. “Vehicle ownership will change in 10 to 15 years; there will be less personal ownership,” he predicts. “I can imagine a world where you hire a driverless car from, say, Google or Amazon but not own it. You’ll be paying for the mileage. And it’s a good thing because you get the right car for whatever your needs are. After you use it, it will be used by someone else. That makes for more efficient land use, because there will be fewer car parks in the city and more parks.”

But that vision is still some years away, Armitage cautions. “We’re still quite a few years away from taking our hands off the wheel and switching our brains off.”

Find out how automakers are reinventing themselves for the future of mobility at TU-Automotive Detroit (June 3-4).


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