Where are we now?
While the benefits of vehicle automation are clear, it will be some time before we see a fully automated vehicle that is capable of operating in all environments and weather conditions and has capabilities equivalent to alert, attentive human drivers. While the boundaries in which automated vehicles will work are expanding rapidly, further research and development is needed into the technology, legislation and societal impacts before we see real world deployment of fully automated vehicles.
On the other hand, highly autonomous road vehicles that offer fully autonomous driving some of the time (i.e. when conditions allow) are closer to market. Globally we are seeing manufacturers and research organisations in an escalating competition to develop increasingly advanced driver assistance systems that potentially enable a driver to disengage from the driving task and allow the vehicle to take the strain for some parts of a journey.
However, this version of vehicle autonomy is not without issues. Firstly, a driver must understand whether or not all the systems that are required for autonomous driving are working as expected. Secondly, the driver must understand how to deploy those systems and when they are operational. Thirdly and perhaps most critically, the driver must be able to re-engage with the driving task when required in order to resume control of the vehicle safely. If the driver has disengaged from driving and is eating, using a smartphone or has even fallen asleep, how much warning must the driver be given before they are required to resume control and what format should these warnings take? These questions have significant implications for the automation technology and its capability to predict how the traffic situation is likely to evolve.
As the path to ward automation continues to develop, an interim step could be automated platooning of vehicles where a number of vehicles automatically follow a manually-driven lead vehicle. This may facilitate freight operations at night-time on dedicated semi- or fully-automated vehicle lanes. This could develop into fully segregated freight lanes (possibly as a guided route paved only under the wheel tracks), potentially freeing motorway capacity for use by cars and light vehicles. Such motorways may require lower construction standards to reflect the lighter vehicle load.
Traditionally, improving road safety has hinged upon improvements to road design, driver training, enforcement and vehicle crashworthiness. However, today partially or highly automated cars capable of sensing their environment and taking action to avoid crashes are becoming a possibility.
The speed at which vehicle automation develops will be dependent upon a number of factors including overcoming technological challenges, establishing public acceptance, enabling the infrastructure to support automation, and clarity over legal and insurance requirements. A number of projects are already underway to begin to understand these issues, one of which is the GATEway Project – an £8m UK research project, led by TRL, to understand and overcome the technical, legal and societal challenges of implementing automated vehicles in an urban environment. Taking place in TRL’s UK Smart Mobility Lab in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the project will do trial and validate a series of different use cases for automated vehicles, including driverless shuttles and automated urban deliveries to investigate the use, perception and acceptance of autonomous vehicles in the UK.