Driverless cars – one phrase but two different ideas

Driverless cars - Copyright: arisanjaya

22/05/2014 Written by: Philip Bates

I was recently asked to join a panel discussing Autonomous Systems at the Future World Symposium here in the UK. The discussions ranged widely from driverless cars to pilotless aeroplanes, and included examples of how autonomous systems were increasingly penetrating in the primary and secondary healthcare systems. What I was struck by at that time was the diversity of autonomous systems, no more so in the sector we termed driverless cars. A recent announcement by the car industry with regard to their plans for driverless cars, when put aside the UK Governments announcements regarding driverless cars in Milton Keynes December last year, highlight how this one phrase means different things to different people.

At one end of the spectrum we have the car industry, plus people like Google, who are trying to take “driver assistance” systems, many of which are fitted to some degree in cars today, and act in a complimentary way with a human driver in ultimate control, into what one might call “driverless” systems, that is where the system is ultimate control.  Clearly, there is a fine dividing line between the point at which the human being in ultimate control and the system being in control,  although the aim of google and others appears to be the total removal of the need for a driver when making any typical journey. What is clear from a review of the technical press is that we have, or are very close, to having technology that would allow, in theory, a car without a driver to travel on our roads today in a manner that is at least as safe, and probably safer, than if it had a driver. However, the barriers to the entry of genuinely driverless cars on public roads are far greater than those of mere technology.

First and perhaps where the biggest problem lies, is the issue of “Plan B”.  What happens if the on board and related communication/interface system fails or the system is malignantly attacked?   Ultimately this is why our aeroplanes still have pilots, despite the extensive array of “pilot assistance” systems.

Second, how do you regulate so that everyone can have confidence all vehicles (especially those owned by others on the road) are maintained to ensure operational reliability.  What if there is an accident, who is to blame, the vehicle manufacturer, the owner, the garage that did the last maintenance or vehicle safety check?

Certainly the general consensus at the Future World Symposium seemed to be “driver assistance” systems will become more common and more sophisticated, but it was unlikely that any vehicle on the public highway would lose its driver (or Plan B) any time soon. 

However, as I indicated at the start, there is another avenue of development which also uses the term “driverless car”, but is approaching the problem from a different angle.  These systems which are operating today without drivers in a controlled environment, but which are trying to break out of the constraint, or at least, widen the boundary to more open access areas. Many will be familiar with the Pod at Heathrow. This is a fully autonomous system which transports people from a remote car park, to Terminal 5 via small passenger vehicles and runs on a segregated trackway. While some might argue it is fundamentally no different to a driverless metro (other than the fact that it is smaller), but in my view it misses the crucial point that it can go out onto a wider road network, while a metro is always tied to the rails. Indeed, this is the fundamental premise behind the Government’s announcement related to driverless cars in Milton Keynes.

The Milton Keynes initiative is based on the same basic vehicle technology as the Heathrow Pod, but aims to try and widen the definition of the trackway to include a mixed environment of Pods and pedestrians. The aim is to develop a system that operates from the railway station to the city centre, progressing in three steps. First, Pods will run along a segregated section of the footpath and operate with a driver. Then, the driver will be removed. Finally, in step three, the physical segregation will be removed.  

This is clearly a very exciting initiative, but there are a number of aspects that need to be kept in mind, and which, in my opinion, make the description “driverless car” a little misleading.  

First, the system is still operating on a fixed route from A to B.  You can’t use this system to go anywhere. Second, the top speed of the Pods will be 12mph. This in my view is a critical aspect. The fall out in terms of injury and death are clearly dramatically less at such low speeds (just look at the injury and death statistics that led to the introduction of 20 mph rather than 30 mph zones for residential areas). Third, the footpaths in Milton Keynes are very wide. In the same way that cycle routes are often “painted” onto footpaths, it seems likely that even with a physical barrier, the track of the Pod will be well known to most. As such, I would argue the scheme is simply broadening our definition of the trackway, not doing away with it.

So, at the end of the day, while this is a great initiative, and I believe is a technology that we are likely to see more and more of in the future in our cities, I don’t think calling it a driverless car is helpful. Perhaps it is time for a new name for this concept – perhaps “driverless taxi” or “motorised pedestrian”? 

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