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London has started up a series of trials to demonstrate the potential of driverless cars in the UK, with the government promising a review of road regulations by 2017 to allow for the innovation.
Ministers hosted a showcase of some of the vehicles in Greenwich, southeast London, on Wednesday, with Vince Cable, business secretary, hailing the UK’s position at the “forefront of innovation” in the rapidly advancing technology.
But there was a mixed reception from locals, underlining the distance the technology has to travel before gaining public acceptance.
Martin Kaminski, manager of the nearby Craft Coffee shop, said safety was still a big concern. “You will have driverless cars and normal cars on the roads — someone could just drive into you.”
But Brenda Stevenson, an 82-year-old from Greenwich, said the technology was “absolutely marvellous” as it would help the elderly and disabled to get around and visit friends. “We’ve got to move with the times — you can’t stand back and think everything is going to be the same for ever,” she said.
Autonomous vehicles are being heralded as a way of vastly improving road safety and reducing accidents, more than 90 per cent of which are caused by human error, as well as alleviating the tedium of driving in heavy traffic.
In their fully driverless form, the cars have the potential to increase mobility for those who do not currently hold a licence, such as the elderly or disabled, and free up the six working weeks spent behind the wheel by the average driver in England.
Carmakers from Audi to Tesla — as well as new entrants such as Google — have been scrambling to demonstrate their latest innovations in this increasingly crowded field. Daimler presented its F015 Mercedes-Benz concept at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, which showed front and rear passengers facing each other, chairs swivelled, oblivious to the road ahead.
However, laws and regulations mean that such a scenario is unlikely to be a reality until well beyond the end of the decade.
Legislation in most countries prohibits the use of fully autonomous cars on public roads. Only four states in the US have introduced legislation to allow the testing of autonomous vehicles. As many as 15 American states have rejected autonomous driving bills.
Europe is seeking to amend the Vienna Convention on road traffic, which demands that drivers shall “at all times” control their vehicles.
Britain, which has signed but not ratified the convention, says there is no legislative barrier to testing the cars. But it wants to review and amend the legislation by summer 2017 to provide greater clarity on criminal and civil liability when an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident, and whether changes would be needed to the MOT test to check the roadworthiness of autonomous vehicles.
The government has thrown its weight — and a £19m prize fund — behind the trials as it seeks to show the UK is alive to the potential of the new technology. It plans to write up a “light-touch, non-regulatory” code of practice that would allow further testing of the technology on public roads later this year.
Claire Perry, transport minister, said: “The trials are about what works, how people react to them, and what is the opportunity for British manufacturing?”
Ministers are carrying out a review of the Highway Code that could see changes made to the licensing framework, possibly allowing ownership or use of a fully automated vehicle without the need to hold a driving licence, according to a Department of Transport report published on Wednesday.
The review may result in other changes to the Highway Code, such as including a section on autonomous vehicles and how other road users should interact with these cars.
The Greenwich trial, which formally begins in May, is comprised of two separate projects: a 10-man shuttle bus that will travel in pedestrianised areas and fully autonomous valet parking.
Trials in Milton Keynes — in partnership with the city of Coventry and Jaguar Land Rover, among others — will from this month demonstrate road-going vehicles and self-driving “pods” designed for urban areas.
The vehicles on display outside the O2 Arena included the Lutz autonomous pod, which will be tested in pedestrianised areas of Milton Keynes. The vehicle has a steering wheel, but the company that developed the car — West Midlands-based RDM Group — said the steering column was modular, and could be removed to enable the pod to travel autonomously.
“It’s about enabling mobility in an urban area through different means,” said Nick Reed, senior academy fellow at the Transport Research Laboratory and the technical lead on the Greenwich trial. “We want to test new technology in challenging urban environments, and see how the public reacts.”
That public reaction is key. Motoring groups including the RAC — which is a partner in the Greenwich trial — have warned that it is far from certain that consumers want to relinquish the pleasure of driving, let alone put their trust in the nascent technology.
“Motorists will need a lot of reassurance that the technology can be both reliable and safe enough to mean they are comfortable ceding control of a vehicle,” the RAC said.
A further project in Bristol and south Gloucestershire will seek to examine some of the implications for insurers of driverless vehicles, through a combination of simulations and live trials on public and private roads.
Prize fund offered by UK government
The legislative and regulatory challenges are steep, as are the ethical dilemmas of how a car would react to situations where the choice was between, say, a collision with a tree, hitting a cyclist or running into another vehicle.
“There are still huge unanswered questions around where responsibility lies in the case of an accident or emergency — with the technology provider, the automotive manufacturer or the driver,” said Rainer Mehl, head of global automotive at the consultancy NTT Data.