Standing in what feels like a hot tub on wheels on a chilly morning in the shadow of one of London’s most iconic landmarks might not seem futuristic or glamorous, but it could be the start of an exciting journey to make the UK a world leader in driverless cars.
This mobile jacuzzi is the Meridian shuttle, and it’s one of three vehicles displayed outside the O2 in Greenwich (originally the Millennium Dome) which will be trialled in the UK over the next three years to help scientists, manufacturers and politicians understand how the roads of the future will look.
The Government is frequently criticised for being slow, cumbersome and paralysed by red tape, but its desire to make the UK the global centre for autonomous technology is a far cry from that.
Just six months ago, ministers announced £19million would be ploughed into driverless research, and already we have three working prototypes that will begin testing this year.
Trouble is, the UK is already behind the pace. Google has its well developed vehicle testing openly in the US, while Volvo is the leading manufacturer at its base in Sweden. Audi isn’t far behind, while tech-savvy Japanese makers are advanced, too.
So how realistic is it to expect the UK to challenge these heavyweights and lead the way in welcoming driverless cars on to public roads?
A lengthy review suggests very realistic. The Government is taking a “non-regulatory” approach to testing that goes against most other decisions dithered over by MPs.
In the UK, those wanting to test driverless vehicles openly on public roads won’t have to gain any certificate or permit. A Code of Practice will be published this spring, which testers will have to adhere to, but there will be no legal hoops to jump through.
All the authorities will demand is that a test driver be present in case of emergencies, a data recorder be fitted and that technology on the vehicle has passed tests on closed roads or test tracks.
Business Secretary Vince Cable told Auto Express this is what makes the UK the ideal test bed compared to rival countries. “In the US and continental Europe, they don’t at the moment have regulatory framework to make it possible, which we do,” he said.
“I think the other good thing is that in the UK we’re developing the technology in parallel with a proper understanding of the rules and regulations.”
These rules and regulations form part of the Government’s ‘Pathway to Driverless Cars’ review, which lays out the various challenges the industry will need to overcome, including insurance policies, driving licences and car maintenance.
Beyond the legal issues, though, is the technology. Recently, the UK has enjoyed a rise in car production, with Nissan expanding in Sunderland, Bentley growing in Crewe, Cheshire, and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) continuing to invest heavily in the Midlands.
Transport minister Claire Perry added: “I would like to make Britain the centre of autonomous vehicle manufacture. We know all major manufacturers are interested and, as the review has shown, Britain is the ideal place to run trials which need to be real world.”
In fact, JLR will be heavily involved in the tests in Milton Keynes and Coventry. According to its director of research and technology, Dr Wolfgang Epple, it’s focusing on the driver as much as pedestrians and other road users. “The real-world testing will not only help us deliver a range of new advanced driver assistance technologies, but will ensure the excitement and enjoyment of driving will not be taken away,” he said.
“While the car will be able to drive itself if the driver chooses, our aim is to assist and enhance the driver – and ultimately offer levels of autonomy to suit the driver’s mood or needs on and off-road.”
So with testing approved and manufacturers backing the UK’s push to be the best, what about the technological advances? Can we beat our rivals?
Antony Waldock, technical lead on the Bristol trial, which starts in April, certainly thinks so. He told us: “We’re taking tech from UK universities, plus small and large companies, and putting it on to the vehicle and understanding how it would work in Bristol.”
Antony will oversee a BAE-developed Bowler Wildcat to determine which systems work best for operating a driverless vehicle. So what makes the UK so special?
“I think we have a real opportunity,” Antony added. “The Google car is focused on the spinning roof sensor, but that doesn’t work in fog, mist and rain, and that’s why Google only tests in California. We’re looking at radar camera solutions and therefore we can start to develop systems to use in all weathers.”
For once, then, the British weather is better than California’s, and the UK looks all set for a driverless revolution – but when will motorists be able to hand over control for their daily commute?
Domestic laws won’t be amended until summer 2017 and EU regulations are unlikely to be changed before the end of 2018. So it’s likely to be the next decade before a fully automated vehicle is on sale here.
Still, the autonomous car industry is expected to be worth £900billion by 2025, and the UK wants a majority share. It’s a long road from Greenwich to global superpower, and the race is on. It remains to be seen whether we’ll take our hands off the wheel first.
Developing the tech is just one hurdle before drivers will be able to hand control to their car and read the paper or have a nap at the wheel. The Government also faces a huge legal shake-up to make it a reality, with question marks over who’d be at fault in the event of a crash and if motorists would still need a licence.
Transport minister Claire Perry admitted it wouldn’t be easy, but said: “We must not be afraid to ask these questions.” So how could things change?
In the event of an accident, is the autonomous system at fault or does liability fall on the ‘driver’? Driverless cars should reduce the number of claims and subsequently bring lower insurance premiums, and the Government says if a driver can still take manual control then a conventional policy is still needed. If a car is fully autonomous, this may change and some manufacturers may choose to self-insure. Policies could be invalidated if owners fail to keep software and tech up-to-date to prevent cyber threats, however.
The Government makes a clear distinction between highly automated vehicles – for which existing licence laws remain, as you still have to take control at times – and fully automated vehicles. The latter, which are still some way away from the road, may require changes, as they may appeal to drivers who can’t or don’t wish to drive conventional cars.
EU standards will need to be updated for driverless car production, and that includes ensuring performance of automated systems can be tested cheaply and easily for the annual MoT. Issues could arise if a car can be driven manually, but the automated systems are broken – would this mean it’s roadworthy?
Autonomous cars will be expected to follow current guidelines, but the Highway Code will need to change to get the most out of them. The tech will allow more accurate driving so, for example, cars could overtake cyclists more closely, while tailgating may no longer be an offence – as running driverless cars close together better uses road capacity and cuts emissions.
What’s the vehicle? Meridian shuttle
Where is the trial taking place? Greenwich, SE London
When is it taking place? Now
What does it involve? Passenger shuttle transport and autonomous valet parking of electric cars
For how long will it last? Two years
What are its aims? To explore reactions of pedestrians and drivers to driverless cars, and look into the legal changes needed
What’s the vehicle? BAE Bowler Wildcat
Where is the trial taking place? Bristol
When is it taking place? April
What does it involve? A purpose-built simulator will be mixed with live trials on private and public roads
For how long will it last? Three years
What are its aims? To tackle the insurance implications, while also finding out which of the driverless systems works most effectively
What’s the vehicle? Catapult pod
Where is the trial taking place? Milton Keynes and Coventry
When is it taking place? Late 2015
What does it involve? Self-driving demos at Milton Keynes rail station; public road tests of semi-autonomous Range Rovers
For how long will it last? Three years
What are its aims? To understand use of lightweight pods in pedestrianised areas, plus the legal implications of use in city
The new C, E and S-Class can steer, accelerate and brake for you on the motorway, and Mercedes already has prototypes that can check your blind spots, flick the indicator and pull out – and back in again – to overtake slower-moving traffic.
Mercedes bosses have told us in the past their self-driving models are likely to arrive in 2018. Nissan is working to a similar timescale, and we’ve ridden in a prototype Leaf that could sense parked cars in its lane and give way to oncoming traffic, before pulling around the obstacle and back into its lane.
BMW’s approach has been a little different – it’s showcased an M235i that can drift around a slalom and do hot laps of the Nürburgring. But more sensible tech is coming, with traditional semi-autonomous systems already being developed for the next-generation 7 Series.