Many people believe that the ultimate road safety feature that we will see is that of automation. The United Kingdom has already started trialing this new technology and in this latest entry into the Brake blog, Professor Nick Reed looks at how automation is currently being developed and the potential pitfalls it may face.
Last year, I wrote an article for Brake’s blog in which I posed the question as to whether driverless cars were a silver bullet for delivering safety or (yet) another fool’s gold – promising much but delivering little. I think it is fair to say that true, robust evidence on this remains inconclusive. However, interest in this topic remains incredibly strong and growing in intensity.
Automation of the driving task is unquestionably one of the most important issues occupying the mind of vehicle developers, technology providers, city planners, road authorities and many organisations in adjacent sectors. All are keen to capture the promised value in improved safety, cleaner travel, greater efficiency, and to tackle real societal challenges posed by a growing, ageing and increasingly urbanised population. At the same time, further innovations are being developed that may cause similar disruption to our transportation systems, including flying cars, delivery drones and high speed tunnels. Technology is causing boundaries to be blurred. Where once there was a common understanding of the terms ‘car’, ‘road’ and ‘driver’, new categories of vehicle are emerging that challenge these previously fixed concepts. Similarly, small, innovative start-up organisations and established technology giants are challenging the well-established systems and operating models of traditional transport providers.
This is exciting because there are an increasingly diverse array of options to meet our mobility needs in ways that are safer, cleaner, more affordable, more accessible and more efficient. However, this will only occur if we are suitably diligent around the ways in which these technologies are developed and deployed. This highlights the considerable importance of Brake’s work in campaigning for safer roads and of TRL’s research and innovation around transport systems, but also the crucial need for government and regulatory authorities to have the tools, resources and capabilities with which to embrace, support and guide this revolution. By developing guidelines to support testing of automated vehicles, by funding of collaborative projects to encourage further investment in the UK and the coordination of the strategy behind these activities by a dedicated governmental policy unit; the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), the UK can justifiably claim to be a leading player in this domain.
However, the race to deliver effective automated vehicle mobility services is global and highly competitive. There have certainly been some impressive demonstrations including Otto (owned by Uber) transporting 50,000 beers in a truck that completed 120 highway miles with no human intervention. Google, now operating through its recently launched mobility services brand, Waymo, has just surpassed three million miles of automated operation across a fleet of vehicles in various locations across the US. Tesla is collecting data from drivers of its vehicles equipped with the AutoPilot partial automation functionality, giving access to data from over a billion miles of vehicles equipped with automation systems.
Though these achievements are truly as exciting as they are remarkable, we await the first casualty resulting from the actions of an automated road vehicle. Make no mistake, this heart-breaking incident will happen and will be very well publicised. However, I see two ways in which industry can prepare for this tragedy. Firstly, we must be able to articulate clearly the relative safety of automated vehicles when compared to the behaviour of human drivers. This is a far from trivial task but being able to illustrate how automated vehicles avoid many of the common situations that result in road collisions will be of paramount importance in reinforcing the value of pursuing their development and use. Secondly, companies involved in the development of automated vehicles should be prepared to share safety-relevant vehicle data with industry peers. Although data and intellectual property are of course highly prized, the sharing of information to enable all automated vehicles (and their developers) to learn from the mistakes of others would be characteristic of an enlightened and mature approach and would accelerate reduction of risk for all users of our road environments.