The idea that cars might drive themselves has been with us for many years. However, it’s only recently that the computing power, software sophistication and sensor developments required to make automated vehicles – both practical and viable – have been achieved. Now new trials in the UK and a rash of early stage initiatives in emerging markets will only accelerate the end-game of fully autonomous vehicles, says Akin Adamson, Middle East Director, TRL (Transport Research Laboratory).
The concept of vehicle automation is not new; TRL has been working on vehicle automation in one form or another for more than 50 years. This research led to significant developments in safe and effective driver assist systems and technologies to optimise fuel efficiency.
In the 1960s, TRL made significant progress towards automated vehicles, producing a driverless Citroën DS19 that was able to follow electric cables embedded on our test track and which was tested up to 80mph. It was reliable, accurate and robust, even in challenging weather conditions.
Although the Citroën was specially chosen for this purpose due to its hydraulic power-assisted steering mechanism, the automated driving equipment was eventually fitted to more mundane vehicles such as a Mk II Ford Cortina, a Mini, even a bus. But with concerns over the costs for fitting and maintaining electric cables on great swathes of our roadways, funding for these experiments was eventually withdrawn in the mid-1970s.
Today, developments in computing power and technology have enabled automated vehicles to become a genuinely viable and practical proposition. But why exactly do we need driverless cars?
Benefits of driverless vehicles
There are many benefits to the introduction of driverless cars, but a primary one is safety. Nearly 1.3m people die on roads around the world each year, with human error a contributory factor in more than 90% of collisions. Automation of the driving task may enable us to reduce significantly the number of road casualties.
We also know that cars spend 95% of their life parked – automation may enable us to get much more efficient use of this asset, particularly if combined with innovative new car sharing models. Automated electric vehicles may also significantly reduce dependence on cars, especially in cities, leading to improved air quality and reduced noise. At the same time, automated vehicles can also support greater mobility for those who have difficulty driving such as the elderly and the disabled.
Another benefit is improvements to network capacity and journey time reliability. A highways system populated by fully automated, connected vehicles could not only enable vehicles to travel more closely and potentially at higher speed than they do currently, but could allow for lanes to narrowed, so increasing capacity still further. Furthermore, it could even allow road operators to vary the vehicle alignment to prevent rutting, which combined with smoother driving could reduce maintenance requirements. Similarly, a fully automated transport system should reduce the need for sharp braking and could be operated on a surface with a modest level of friction.