The impact of driverless cars

Almost 4,000 lives will be saved by 2030 thanks to the imminent introduction of driverless cars, according to a major report on the rise of automation in the motoring sector.

Almost 4,000 lives will be saved by 2030 thanks to the imminent introduction of driverless cars, according to a major report on the rise of automation in the motoring sector.

David Edbrooke
Sub editor
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Posted 3 JANUARY 2020

A transport revolution

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) believes that 3,900 road deaths can be prevented, with driverless car technology helping to prevent 47,000 serious collisions by 2030.

Eliminating those accidents alone could save more than £2 billion, although the SMMT notes there’s an even bigger financial prize up for grabs. If the UK can lead the way in this lucrative market, the SMMT predicts 420,000 new jobs will be created and the economy will benefit to the tune of £62 billion.

Mike Hawes, the SMMT’s chief executive, said: “A transport revolution stands before us as we shift to connected and autonomous vehicles. These technologies are no longer solely in the realm of science fiction. Their adoption represents arguably the greatest change to how we travel since the invention of the motor car.”

He added: “Some people see automotive as yesterday’s economy, but we don’t agree. We’re on the precipice of something more exciting and exhilarating than ever before – and the UK is ready for the journey.”

SMMT says the UK can beat rivals such as America, Japan and Germany in the race to embrace driverless technology, thanks to favourable infrastructure, regulation and market conditions.

It believes four key areas need to be addressed for the UK to cash in on this opportunity. These are:

  • New road traffic laws
  • Improving 4G mobile phone coverage on the A and B road network
  • Encouraging local authorities to work with the industry
  • Working towards international standards

The driverless car revolution could hail huge savings for the NHS, too. The latest Department for Transport data shows £1.8 billion was spent on medical and ambulance costs in dealing with road accidents in 2018.

Although the majority of accidents are caused by human error, the general public are not fully convinced of the safety credentials of driverless cars.

Human error and accidents

Accident statistics show how human error is responsible for the majority of road accidents – and why some feel driverless cars can make the roads a lot safer.

The Department for Transport estimates that 70% of the casualties reported from UK road accidents were caused by driver error.

The data shows what caused the 126,977 casualties:

Road environment Vehicle defects Injudicious action
9,549 (11%) 1,392 (2%) 16,839 (20%)
Driver/Rider error or reaction
Impairment or distraction Behaviour or inexperience
57,102 (67%) 12,616 (15%) 18,892 (22%)
Vision affected by external factors Pedestrian only (casualty or uninjured) Special Codes
8,784 (10%) 10,385 (12%) 3,945 (5%)

**Numbers may not add up to 100% as some accidents have more than one contributory factor.

The Department for Transport also breaks these incidents down, showing the sorts of human errors that cause serious road incidents.

2% 1% 13% 2% 38%
Junction overshoot Junction restart (moving off at junction) Poor turn or manoeuvre Failed to signal or misleading signal Driver/Rider failed to look properly
20% 1% 5% 3% 11%
Driver/Rider failed to judge other person’s path or speed Too close to cyclist, horse rider or pedestrian Sudden braking Swerved Loss of control

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says the majority of this human error can be eliminated using driverless cars. However, it adds that it would be impossible to make driving 100% safe.

It stated: “There is an expectation that driverless cars and autonomous systems will deliver a ‘near zero’ harm solution for everyone, including vehicle occupants and those termed ‘vulnerable road users’, such as pedestrians and cyclists.

“However, ‘near zero’ does not mean absolutely zero, as there could be times where the driverless vehicle will be forced to choose between options where there is no outcome that avoids harm to all road users.”

On the roads by 2021

The UK Government says it is on track to have fully self-driving vehicles on our roads by 2021. 
In February 2019, ministers announced fresh support for advanced trials, and tougher rules on the safety requirements for those testing driverless cars. 
And in September, George Freeman, the minister responsible for the future of transport, opened a new facility to test self-driving cars at Millbrook-Culham in Bedfordshire. 
The facility boasts more than 40 miles of test tracks and a car simulator suite.

George Freeman

Future of transport minister

“Self-driving vehicles can offer significant rewards for the UK’s economy, road safety and accessibility. We are determined to lead in the testing and development of safe autonomous transport.

“This is new terrain, and with our national expertise, the UK is well-placed to blaze the trail globally by developing a global benchmark for assuring the safety and security of this exciting technology.”

While the UK Transport Research Laboratory first considered the possibility of ‘self-driving’ cars in the 1950s and 60s, the idea has taken off in recent years. Google made its first driverless car announcement in 2010. And trials of driverless cars funded by the UK Government took place in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry in 2015.

Attitudes to driverless cars 

For driverless cars to be fully embraced by UK road users, fans of the technology will have to win over a sceptical public.

Research from Thales, a technology company, found that more than half of people in the UK (57%) would not feel safe travelling in a driverless car.

It also discovered that:

  • Nearly a quarter of the public feel apprehensive about driverless cars (23%)
  • A fifth are fearful (20%)
  • Only about one in eight people are excited or optimistic for the technology (12%)
  • Just 16% of people would feel safe in one.

Aside from general safety concerns, people are worried about problems with connectivity and cyberattacks.

Dr Alvin Wilby, vice president for research, innovation and technology at Thales UK, said: “For the Government’s 2021 vision to become a reality, autonomous cars must not only be safe, but also be perceived as safe by the public.”

Attitudes have probably not been helped by high-profile crashes during tests, most notably involving Uber and Tesla in America.

Driverless car insurance

The insurance sector is changing to meet the demands of a world in which driverless cars are going to become more common.

In July 2018, the Government passed the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act. That enshrined in UK law the principle that the driver is insured when they are driving – and when they have put the car in fully automated mode.

Dan Hutson

Head of Motor Insurance at Compare the Market

“Looking to the future, it seems a strong possibility there will be driverless car insurance. In fact, the Government has already put out proposals for how it will work. For example, you won’t be surprised to hear that adapting the self-driving software would invalidate your insurance policy.”

The likely impact on the price of insurance is not yet known, but premiums could fall if driverless cars do cut accident rates by as much as some believe.

Dan added: “What car insurance for driverless cars will be like isn’t known just yet. But better tech should mean fewer car accidents, and fewer accidents could mean lower car insurance.”

Impact on petrol stations

Not all of the potential disadvantages of driverless cars are immediately obvious – or widely discussed. The current fleet of vehicles is supported by a network of about 8,500 filling stations that provide petrol and diesel to UK motorists.

These filling stations offer employment to 100,000 people, which generates £1.1 million for the wider economy. These filling stations are often the only store in a village or rural area. And convenience sales from filling stations alone are estimated to be about £4.1 billion a year.

The question is whether these fuel stations will continue to exist if we move to full car automation and ‘charge-at-home’ vehicles become commonplace.

The UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA) says filling stations make a key contribution to the economy. It believes they will evolve to continue to serve the needs of road users in an era of driverless cars.

Jamie Baker

From the UKPIA

“Filling stations play an important role today in the UK economy. They are the main way in which people get their fuels, and they employ 100,000 people across the UK.

“It is clear the fuel retail sector will need to adapt to a changing business environment, with the movement of people and goods predicted to radically change in the coming decades. Predicted changes include automation and driverless vehicles, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence, real-time data-sharing with other road users, or fuel deliveries being made directly to your home or place of work.

“UKPIA believes the fuel retail sector will continue to have a role to play in how we travel in the 21st century, and that those companies running forecourts will respond to changing consumer ‘wants’. At the consumer-end of the industry, this may well mean a reimagined forecourt. For instance, a forecourt with space for electric, hybrid, conventionally-powered and perhaps hydrogen vehicles, meaning more ways to refuel. Likewise, an expanded retail offer could be one option to satisfy customers as they charge or refuel."

How do driverless cars work?

Driverless cars combine several pieces of technology to automate the process of driving.

This includes:

  • Radar sensors to spot other vehicles
  • Cameras to spot road signs, lights and pedestrians
  • LiDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors to find the edge of the road and lane markings
  • Ultrasonic sensors in the wheels to identify the proximity of kerbs and other cars during automatic parking
  • A central computer that analyses the data from every sensor, and uses that information to decide how the car is driven

Driverless cars: The five levels of development

It’s important to understand there are different stages to the driverless car revolution. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has created five ‘levels’ of automation.

These are:

1. The driver is in control with one aspect automated, such as cruise control or lane-keeping assist. This technology has been in some models for 20 years.

3. This next stage of development is known as ‘conditional automation’. Cars at this level can take over every critical driving function, provided they are given the order to do so by the driver.

5. The ultimate stage of automation, in which cars will travel anywhere with passenger(s), and a driver won’t be required. SMMT estimates we won’t reach this stage until about 2035.

2. This is the stage that some pioneers have now reached. Two or more elements are automated. These could include lane-keeping assistance and advanced cruise control, as well as self-parking.

4. Drivers will be able to hand total control to the car in built-up geofenced areas.

Driverless cars: The race to discover the right tech

One pioneering team of academics thinks companies are focusing their attention in the wrong direction. This team has an alternative idea to further the driverless car revolution.

While others are concentrating on developing sensors, Cambridge-based computer software company Wayve wants to switch the attention to machine learning. Wayve believes this will be key to getting driverless cars on the roads in greater numbers.

Amar Shah

From Wayve

“The missing piece of the self-driving puzzle is intelligent algorithms, not more sensors, rules and maps. Humans have a fascinating ability to perform complex tasks in the real world, because our brains allow us to learn quickly and transfer knowledge across our many experiences. We want to give our vehicles better brains, not more hardware.”

Wayve’s team includes leading experts in robotics, computer vision and artificial intelligence from Cambridge and Oxford universities. The team has also called on the experience of the likes of NASA, Google, Facebook, Skydio (a successful start-up specialising in drone technology) and Microsoft.

Alex Kendall, who co-founded Wayve with Amar Shah, said: “Building a self-driving system which can safely drive on roads is too difficult to hand-engineer. We’re betting on technology like reinforcement and imitation learning. We think machine learning will provide the breakthrough to deliver autonomous vehicles for everyone, everywhere.”

Wayve is in the process of testing its technology on public roads in the UK.

Disadvantages of driverless cars

While driverless cars are predicted to be on UK roads by 2021, it’s likely to take a decade for their use to become widespread.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has warned there are some risks involved in the stages of automation, especially while cars still require humans to take over in an emergency.

It stressed: “The challenge of this is keeping the driver, who may need to take control of the vehicle at any time if the system requires them to, ‘in the loop’. Drivers may not pay much attention to their ‘driving’ if they believe that the technology will prevent them from crashing no matter what.”

It points out four “ironies” about partially automated systems that pose a risk. Those are:

Task allocation – there’s a temptation to automate the easy driving tasks humans can already handle well and leave the difficult ones to the human

Disengagement – a lack of practice makes humans slower and less skilled if and when they’re needed to intervene

Cognition – drivers could become bored and get distracted at critical moments if they are not continually engaged in the act of driving

Control – the skill of driving needs to be regularly practised – and people need to know when and how to intervene to take control.

Driverless cars on trial

While the likes of Tesla and Waymo are busy testing driverless car technology in America, there are many trials underway across the UK.

Westfield Technology Group has designed a self-driving 'pod', which uses sensors to spot and avoid obstacles.

Trials of its pod vehicle have already taken place in China and in many parts of England, including:

The O2 Arena and Olympic Park in London Birmingham, Manchester and Heathrow airports Stockport railway station Bristol city centre The Lake District

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