Driverless cars on UK roads in under six months

Vince Cable announces three-city project and are set to review road regulations to pave the way for automated consumer vehicles

by Elliot Johnston   July 31, 2014  

Google's self-driving car prototype (image via Google Blog)

Driverless cars are set to join cyclists, motorists and pedestrians on the streets of three UK cities this coming January in a £10 million funded project.

Business, Innovation & Skills secretary Vince Cable’s announcement that the introduction of driverless vehicles to the country’s roads had been fast tracked is accompanied by news that the government will be reviewing road regulations which currently ban the use of automated driving technology.

Initially, the cars will operate for a trial period of 18 to 36 months in three cities, with the funding coming from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport, in partnership with the UK’s innovation agency.

The cities are yet to be determined, but the government are encouraging businesses and research organisations around the country to put forward proposals before October 1 for their city to be chosen.

Alongside the work being done in government to bring these projects to the country’s roads, a review of current road regulations is being undertaken, to ensure that the laws are clear when the projects get underway in January.

Currently, it is illegal for cars to operate on roads in the UK without the a driver in control. There are semi-autonomous systems currently on the market, which keep cars in lanes on the motorway and control their speed, as well aiding in parking and safe braking. However, these systems require a driver to be fit and licensed to drive, and to have their hands on the wheel at all times, to stay within the law.

The two part review into legislation regarding driverless vehicles will focus first on the need for them to comply with current construction and safety regulations, traffic laws and relevant aspects of the Highway Code.

Meanwhile the second part of the investigation will analyse the licensing, liability and insurance policies being put in place for driverless vehicles in other countries, which should help inform the drafting of our own.

The results of this review are due at the end of 2014, before the tests begin in January 2015.

Cable also had complimentary words for the skills of the scientists and engineers here who have pioneered the development of driverless vehicles.

"The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as a pioneer in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects," he said. "Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than 6 months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society.

Claire Perry, the Transport Minister, added: "Driverless cars have huge potential to transform the UK’s transport network – they could improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, particularly CO2.

"We are determined to ensure driverless cars can fulfil this potential which is why we are actively reviewing regulatory obstacles to create the right framework for trialling these vehicles on British roads."

The director of AA Cars, David Bruce, told the Guardian that while features assisting motorists to stay in lane or help with parking are becoming increasingly common, "there is a big leap of faith needed by drivers from embracing assistance systems to accepting the fully automated car.

"Two-thirds of AA members still enjoy driving too much to want a fully automated car," he added.

Google, which has been at the forefront of the development of driverless technology, has consistently been keen to highlight the safety of the technology.

In April of this year we reported that the search giant had released a video which demonstrated how its driverless technology was being taught to deal with cyclists on the road. You can watch it below and make up your own mind how safe you’d feel next to one of these vehicles.

The following month Google unveiled its own self driving car, which didn’t even feature a steering wheel. One feature highlighted at its launch is the fact that the car’s bumper ismade of foam, which supposedly reduces impact injuries should the technology fail.

27 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

The problem with cars lies between the steering wheel and the drivers seat.

Bring them on.

posted by earth [115 posts]
31st July 2014 - 21:20

89 Likes

When can I get a self navigating bike?

@rich22222

posted by rich22222 [135 posts]
31st July 2014 - 21:27

57 Likes

The quicker driverless cars become mainstream the better! Bring it on

posted by TheDoctor [84 posts]
31st July 2014 - 21:40

48 Likes

In about a year's time, I'll either be wishing I was living in the UK or I'll be happy that I'm not in a "blue sceern of death" country... toss the dice boys!
Yes, I am kidding! I think it's a great idea. The sooner we can take stupidity, emotions and distractions away from what is actually a very serious task, the better.

Theoretically, tailwinds should exist.

Hypoxic's picture

posted by Hypoxic [5 posts]
1st August 2014 - 4:53

47 Likes

How do these cars deal with potholes? Hopefully they have some avoidence system. However if they do these cars will not travel more than about two metres in Wiltshire.

Come on let's have some proper roads that aren't reminiscent of a third world country.

posted by wellcoordinated [102 posts]
1st August 2014 - 6:44

64 Likes

As soon as one of these cars hits someone and injures them they will be deemed far too unsafe to be on our roads.

And we'll go back to cars with drivers, legally allowed to kill several people, every single day.

posted by farrell [1580 posts]
1st August 2014 - 7:35

60 Likes

farrell wrote:
As soon as one of these cars hits someone and injures them they will be deemed far too unsafe to be on our roads.

And we'll go back to cars with drivers, legally allowed to kill several people, every single day.

It seems nobody wants to prosecute drivers who cause accidents. Society would rather find excusses to let them off instead. Probably because most of society are drivers and the mob rules.

If there is no driver at the wheel to blame then blame will land on the manufacturer. The manufacturer is a company with plenty of cash for compensation claims and insurance to back them. There will not be the same resistance to fining a company as punishing a person.

While a fine will not reverse an accident, nothing does, it will serve as a deterrent and focus the manufacturers efforts on safety.

posted by earth [115 posts]
1st August 2014 - 7:52

58 Likes

wellcoordinated wrote:
How do these cars deal with potholes? Hopefully they have some avoidence system. However if they do these cars will not travel more than about two metres in Wiltshire.

Come on let's have some proper roads that aren't reminiscent of a third world country.

Well I guess they will have some form of suspension to deal with potholes, you know like all other cars.

The sooner these are mandatory the better!

posted by drfabulous0 [403 posts]
1st August 2014 - 8:52

53 Likes

farrell wrote:
As soon as one of these cars hits someone and injures them they will be deemed far too unsafe to be on our roads.

And we'll go back to cars with drivers, legally allowed to kill several people, every single day.

Like many things, the technical challenges will be dwarfed by the political and legal stuff. If you buy a driverless car, and it injures someone, I bet the small print will say that the occupant in the 'driving' seat still has overall accountability - basically to stop the manufacturers from being sued. Thus it will still be illegal to be distracted by a book or a phone, and people will question the point of buying one.

Presumably the occupant will need to assume control in unexpected circumstances anyway, the software won't be able to interpret *everything*.

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [3475 posts]
1st August 2014 - 9:04

57 Likes

Let’s hope not too many drivers select “Punishment pass” under Options->Driving style->Aggressive
Sad

posted by Pub bike [68 posts]
1st August 2014 - 9:57

57 Likes

Pub bike wrote:
Let’s hope not too many drivers select “Punishment pass” under Options->Driving style->Aggressive
Sad

Apparently on BMWs you will have to actively turn that mode off.

posted by farrell [1580 posts]
1st August 2014 - 10:24

75 Likes

notfastenough wrote:
farrell wrote:
As soon as one of these cars hits someone and injures them they will be deemed far too unsafe to be on our roads.

And we'll go back to cars with drivers, legally allowed to kill several people, every single day.

Like many things, the technical challenges will be dwarfed by the political and legal stuff. If you buy a driverless car, and it injures someone, I bet the small print will say that the occupant in the 'driving' seat still has overall accountability - basically to stop the manufacturers from being sued. Thus it will still be illegal to be distracted by a book or a phone, and people will question the point of buying one.

Presumably the occupant will need to assume control in unexpected circumstances anyway, the software won't be able to interpret *everything*.

The political and legal stuff is always going to be the big challenge. I think that a big problem will be that cars, in the way that we use them, will never be able to be truly self-driving machines. For example, imagine taking a self-driving car to a car boot sale. How would you program the destination (a field) and how would the car know where to park in the field (which has no marked spaces etc.) when you arrive. For instances like this there will need to be some sort of manual control available to the driver. The concept that you could bundle the kids in the car and ask it to take them to school is still a long way off and I suspect would require extensive infrastucture changes as well as development of the driverless technology.

This could also lead to all sorts of legal problems if a driver chooses to drive rather than letting the computer take control. In the event of a crash would the driver be liable on the basis that they should have let the car take control? Would insurers place an insistance on owners of driverless vehicles that they are not driven manually? As the technology becomes more commonplace will driver testing become less stringent? Will speed limits increase?

Broadly speaking I am in favour of driverless technology and love the idea of sleeping/reading/working on a long journey but there remains a huge amount of legal stuff to sort out before we can start using the technology.

posted by Matt eaton [498 posts]
1st August 2014 - 11:11

42 Likes

One issue that occurs to me is that there will _have_ to be the possibility for the controls to be overridden by a human driver in the even of something unexpected happening. So there would have to be the same rules applied to the car occupant being sober and capable of driving that we currently have.

But, on the other hand, there would surely be a _huge_ temptation for users to, irrespective of the rules, just clamber into the thing while drunk, or still eating their breakfast, or to just lie down and take a nap, or even to just shove the kids in it and tell it to take them to school.

Seems like there will be a fight over that, and just as with the current rules on mobile phone use, its not clear that the law will triumph over human nature.

Seems like the results will be hard to predict in a lot of ways, but personally I suspect it will be more bad than good. At the very least, I reckon it will mean a lot more traffic and even less active travel.

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [751 posts]
1st August 2014 - 11:28

34 Likes

farrell wrote:
Pub bike wrote:
Let’s hope not too many drivers select “Punishment pass” under Options->Driving style->Aggressive
Sad

Apparently on BMWs you will have to actively turn that mode off.

It's firmly disabled on mine, but it seems I need something to indicate that fact on the back of the car, judging by the hassle I get for slowing behind cyclists until there's a clear second lane to overtake...

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [3475 posts]
1st August 2014 - 11:30

44 Likes

FluffyKittenofTindalos wrote:
One issue that occurs to me is that there will _have_ to be the possibility for the controls to be overridden by a human driver in the even of something unexpected happening. So there would have to be the same rules applied to the car occupant being sober and capable of driving that we currently have.

But, on the other hand, there would surely be a _huge_ temptation for users to, irrespective of the rules, just clamber into the thing while drunk, or still eating their breakfast, or to just lie down and take a nap, or even to just shove the kids in it and tell it to take them to school.

Seems like there will be a fight over that, and just as with the current rules on mobile phone use, its not clear that the law will triumph over human nature.

Seems like the results will be hard to predict in a lot of ways, but personally I suspect it will be more bad than good. At the very least, I reckon it will mean a lot more traffic and even less active travel.

Although I broadly support driverless technology my concerns are the same as yours. Car users will not be concerned that thier daily commute involves sitting in traffic for an hour if they are able to use this time to, for instance, eat breakfast or check their inbox (although some drivers do these things already). Being more fantastical, driverless cars might be considered safe enough that seatbelts are not required. This would give scope for vehicles with space for sleeping or a formal desk-space for working on-the-move. In a camper-van type of vehicle you could even go to sleep at night and only have to wake up when you were already half way to work, at which point you could make a coffee and sit down in front of the telly.

posted by Matt eaton [498 posts]
1st August 2014 - 13:28

48 Likes

Utter, utter madness. Will an automated system be able to see that children are playing in a field near the road and slow down in case a ball comes hurtling over with a child in pursuit? Will it be able to detect situations like the school and nursery I pass on the way to work, which doesn't just have normal parking but cars parked to disgorge small kids and infants, for which I slow right down when I pass? Or a pedestrian waiting to cross looking more and more impatient? I think not.

Of course, people will say driverless cars are safer because they can react more quickly than a human. But that just means they will drive faster and closer to the car in front, negating the advantage.

And what about the concentration required to drive one of these things? You have to be fully alert and monitor its every action just in case it goes wrong, and if it does, your reaction will be slower than if you were actually driving because you first have to realise that it isn't reacting, snap out of relaxing mode, and then brake or steer. And people will get bored, switch off and read or sleep. Ignore the cant that someone should always monitor the car. It is meaningless. These systems have to be perfect from the start, which they won't be.

The answer to human failings is to exclude bad drivers from the road with meaningful bans for behaviour that shows the driver does not have the attitude required to be in charge of a potentially lethal machine. You do realise that if 'driverless' cars become widespread, any idiot will be allowed to be in charge of one? Instead of bans, judges will just impose restrictions on driving normal ones so the bad drivers get worse through lack of practice.

My car already has one automatic system: the indicators. I turn them on and they cancel at random, often before I have even reached the junction, and fail to cancel when I have completed the manoeuvre. They are a constant distraction as I have to monitor them all the time. I used to drive a Citroën, many years ago, before the lawmakers made all manufacturers conform to their idea of good practice. You switched the indicators on and they blinked until you turned them off. Simples. I didn't forget them: you all learned the sequence mirror - indicate - manoeuvre - cancel. But occasionally people forgot to cancel, which can be dangerous, and some people started saying that the weak link was the humans here. Sound familiar? Far better an automatic system that needs constant monitoring and correcting, apparently, rather than ensuring good design so that the flashing dashboard light is visible and the 'tick' audible -- neither is the case in my current car, a Toyota.

And let me ask you: is your GPS utterly reliable?

Don't give me more automation. Give me a car that obeys my instructions and does what I direct it to, reliably and without distractions so I can concentrate on the road.

posted by arowland [102 posts]
1st August 2014 - 18:32

53 Likes

arowland wrote:
Utter, utter madness. Will an automated system be able to see that children are playing in a field near the road and slow down in case a ball comes hurtling over with a child in pursuit? Will it be able to detect situations like the school and nursery I pass on the way to work, which doesn't just have normal parking but cars parked to disgorge small kids and infants, for which I slow right down when I pass? Or a pedestrian waiting to cross looking more and more impatient? I think not.

Of course, that's the whole bloody point! That's why there is ongoing testing, trials and developement.

Of course these are going to change the way we use cars, they are kind of expensive and it would be stupid to leave them sitting around doing nothing most of the time, logically they will operate more like car clubs and Johnny Cabs.

posted by drfabulous0 [403 posts]
1st August 2014 - 22:03

34 Likes

Cannot happen fast enough. I do not fear being killed by a car, but live in constant fear of a driver killing me with their car...a huge and vital difference the judiciary refuse to grasp as they appear to adopt the mind set that any death involving motorised transport must be an accident.

This appears to fuel the notion that driver responsibility is dissolved despite manufacturers like BMW spending millions promoting the concept that the driver has never been closer (thus surely more responsible rather than less) to the car and its performance capability.

Bring it on Google, let's start saving lives.

Hating our selfish and ignorant car culture

posted by ironmancole [191 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 0:14

40 Likes

The safety systems controlling driverless cars are not and can never be infallible. This is a dangerous path to begin down.

posted by Beaufort [184 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 7:15

23 Likes

Beaufort wrote:
The safety systems controlling driverless cars are not and can never be infallible. This is a dangerous path to begin down.

It doesn't need to be infallible, just better than a human being. They have a multitude of sensors pointing in every direction and NEVER take their "eyes" off the road or miss things due to saccadic masking. They behave in a predictable manner and can engage in high level communications with Google and other driverless cars in the vicinity without becoming distracted. They never become impatient or angry, they never get drunk and they refuse to operate if the vehicle is not in a safe condition.

Face it driving a car is an activity far better suited to a computer's capabilities than a person's. Since the earliest prototypes the only time one these has ever been in an accident was when under manual control.

The real difficulty will be once it becomes clear that these are way way safer to find the political will to ban manually driven vehicles. There will really be no excuse to allow people to operate motor vehicles except that they like it and want to continue killing and maiming with impunity. Ten years from now manually driven cars will be a massive elephant in the room and I suspect it will be the insurance companies that finally consign them to history with outrageous premiums rather than politicians.

posted by drfabulous0 [403 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 9:49

19 Likes

Will an automated system be able to see that children are playing in a field near the road and slow down in case a ball comes hurtling over with a child in pursuit?

Most human drivers wouldn't spot this situation and slow down, and if a ball and child does appear, the automated system is going to react quicker.

I'm starting to think that aiming for universal Dutch style infrastructure may not be the best solution in the UK, because we are nowhere near having the necessary political will, public demand and funding. Instead, driverless cars might create a safe road environment for cyclists relatively cheaply and quickly.

As mentioned above, I can see manually driven cars being removed from the roads by crippling insurance costs, once the technology proves itself. We might end up with a few wealthy enthusiasts who are prepared to spend a fortune to continue driving.

posted by kcr [77 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 14:58

12 Likes

"Will an automated system be able to see that children are playing in a field near the road and slow down in case a ball comes hurtling over with a child in pursuit? "

The majority of drivers can't see that... sensors linked to brakes have to be an improvement, for the children at least, maybe not so much for the following driver who also can't see "that children are playing in a field near ..."

posted by marcswales [8 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 15:57

14 Likes

Beaufort wrote:

The safety systems controlling driverless cars are not and can never be infallible.

But human drivers are? Excuse me, I seem to live in a universe parallel to yours, and in mine bad drivers kill thousands of people every year.

Beaufort wrote:

This is a dangerous path to begin down.

Allowing private motorised transport was a dangerous path to begin down, and here we are.

Work harder. Buy a tank.

userfriendly's picture

posted by userfriendly [325 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 16:48

13 Likes

This news is a bit late. There have been driverless vehicles on London's roads for years. There are three types and all have software glitches.

Type 1) Black car usually large saloon or people-carrier easily identified by the legend "Addison Lee" written on it. Main software glitch: supplied with software for type 2 or 3, software patch rectifying this problem doesn't always work. Also has difficulty recognising vulnerable road users.

Type 2) Large red vehicle. Makes frequent stops accelerating violently from standing start and breaking hard to a stop. Main software glitch: Will indicate for a long time before lurching off and then make no indication of intended actions if they would benefit other road users. Will randomly overtake cyclists and then break hard and stop. As for type 1 has difficulty recognising VRNs.

Type 3) Specialist vehicle usually black. Can usually be recognised from the front by an additional amber light on the roof (maybe illuminated or not - seemingly random), recognised from rear by secondary white number plate. Main software glitches: uncontrollable impulses to veer to and from the kerb and perform U-turns at completely random and unexplained times without indication. Also likely to close pass cyclists at the micron distance. Unable to navigate south of the Thames late at night.

I hope that this has helped clear up the misinformation given out in the media.

posted by levermonkey [395 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 18:34

5 Likes

Beaufort wrote:
The safety systems controlling driverless cars are not and can never be infallible. This is a dangerous path to begin down.

Have you ever flown in a modern commercial airliner?
I'm willing to bet that it was on autopilot more or less from the moment it took off until it landed.

Have you ever been on the DLR? That's driverless.

The technology is there (and it works fine, far better than any person can manage), the only problems are the political and logistical ones.

posted by crazy-legs [568 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 18:37

6 Likes

Beaufort wrote:
The safety systems controlling driverless cars are not and can never be infallible. This is a dangerous path to begin down.

Is that just an uneducated statement? Or do you understand the legislation that would surround them and the intricacies of control systems?

glynr36's picture

posted by glynr36 [506 posts]
2nd August 2014 - 19:27

9 Likes

Latest prototype:

Google's Self-Driving Car

posted by kie7077 [567 posts]
3rd August 2014 - 22:10

1 Like