Inside The UK Government’s Weird And Wacky Self-Driving Car Trials10 October, 2018 / Articles
After three years of self-driving tests, the UK’s connected car trials are finally delivering results
Milton Keynes is full of robots. A few hundred meters from the city’s central shopping area, an autonomous car approaches Campbell Park roundabout. As the Tata vehicle arrives at the roundabout, which is indistinguishable from any of the city’s 130 others, it lurches to a stop. Then waits to make its next move.
“Our system can detect traffic coming around roundabouts but at this point I think we need to do more testing before we allow it to make that final decision,” says Andy Harris, a chief engineer at Tata Motors. The human safety driver, sat behind the steering wheel in anticipation of any problems, checks the road is clear and presses a red button telling the vehicle to advance.
The autonomous test drive on Milton Keynes’ roads – covering a couple of miles, reaching top speeds of 25mph and lasting ten minutes – is the culmination of three years of the UK’s largest self-driving car project. Dubbed Autodrive, the scheme has involved Ford, Tata and Jaguar Land Rover, amongst others. Rather than facing the repetitive, grid-like, block setup of US roads, the autonomous vehicles in the UK have a messier system to contend with.
When you step out of the autonomous Tata vehicle, an autonomous pod with room for four people inside is waiting to transport you along Milton Keynes’ wide footpaths to my final destination. Like the fully autonomous car, the pods from Aurrigo use a combination of sensors to navigate around obstacles and pedestrians. These sensors include Lidar, cameras and radar. The whole process was a little slow, but everything worked seamlessly.
As well as self-driving vehicles, Autodrive has been experimenting with connected vehicles that use wireless technologies to let cars communicate with each other. Separately, robotics firm Starship is delivering shopping around Milton Keynes using self-driving bots.
But, after three years of trials, what has the UK learned about self-driving technology and how it can be used in public spaces? “Cities are very different,” says Tim Armitage, an associate director at Arup and the director of the Autodrive project. The autonomous vehicles Armitage and his team have developed for Milton Keynes and Coventry, he continues, could easily be used in any other city in the UK. “If we transported them to Sheffield they would absolutely not be able to cope with a tram coming down the middle of the road,” Armitage says.
But the city environments of both Coventry and Milton Keynes have caused some problems for the autonomous vehicles. Harris says the centre of Coventry, which is dominated by its university, meant people on foot were often crossing roads unexpectedly and the car had to be taught to better understand pedestrian trajectories.
In Milton Keynes, there were different issues. The mapping technology saw a slight incline in the middle of a busy intersection as a static object that couldn’t be passed. (Tata’s vehicle detects objects in two ways and displays them on a screen inside the car
Trees have also caused issues. “When the leaves started blowing off [the car] started seeing them as moving objects,” says Harris. “When they come across as a cloud they look like a solid object.” The software powering the car had to be programmed not to see foliage as an issue. Carparks are equally unpredictable. As my short trip in the autonomous car ended, a driver in a blue SUV struggled to squeeze into a small parking space. Rather than back off to make more space, the self-driving Tata edged closer before the safety driver took back control from the autonomous system.
These real-world obstacles can’t be anticipated on a test track but when driving freely on public roads in normal traffic the autonomous vehicle has few problems. Similarly, when riding in the autonomous pod, the vehicle slows down as a man in an electric wheelchair passes by.
“Level four autonomous vehicles are very close,” says Armitage. There are five levels of self-driving cars and those at the fourth level are highly autonomous but still may require some human involvement when facing tricky situations. Around the UK numerous self-driving car tests are being conducted.
While the US is more sophisticated when it comes to autonomous driving, trials in Europe and beyond are having to contend with messier urban infrastructure. Trials are due to start in South Africa soon and Germany has been testing autonomous trams.
In the US, Google’s Waymo project has amassed more than nine million self-driving million miles. Tesla’s vehicles are receiving software updates to become more autonomous and one truck has completed a 2,400 mile coast-to-coast journey. Uber’s trials of self-driving technology have been less successful, with a bug in its codeleading to the death of a pedestrian.
Significantly more investment has been poured into self-driving vehicle technology by tech’s biggest firms. “They started first so they have a longer history,” Armitage says. So how can the UK compete with the money of Elon Musk and Google? “It’s not as easy for them as it is for us in the UK when you come to the environment, testing is very difficult,” Armitage adds.
In 2015, the UK government published a code of conduct that sets out rules for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. These state that vehicles have to be insured and meet certain safety requirements to be used. Generally, the guidelines are quite loose, whereas companies wanting to test their vehicles in the US are required to get permits for tests. Uber had its permission revoked in Arizona after its fatal accident.
The understanding of how self-driving cars work needs to be improved in the UK before the technologies can be adopted, Armitage says. Most people don’t understand autonomous systems and because they are still early in development, haven’t experienced one either. In Milton Keynes, Coventry and London, autonomous vehicle trials have been taking people on controlled trial journeys. Online supermarket Ocado has even tested autonomous milk floats.
For cities, there are other things that can be learned. “We’ve got a car dominant model here – we’re like little Los Angeles,” says Geoff Snelson, Milton Keynes’ director of strategy and futures. “It was a great idea for a while, but it isn’t going to stand us in good stead much longer term.”
Snelson says he is involved in planning the expansion of Milton Keynes from a population of around 250,000 to more than 500,000. As new city neighbourhoods are designed, he says, they will have to accommodate self-driving vehicles: waiting areas will be needed for ride-shares and turning circles of pods are being considered. Unfortunately, Snelson says, there hasn’t been the “deep interest” from other local authorities that he was expecting, suggesting mass adoption of self-driving technology is still some way off.
But as the trials in Milton Keynes and Coventry show, autonomous vehicles are getting closer to public roads. “The time for trialling is slowly coming to an end,” Armitage says. “They’re going to be in the real world and where we’re going to have to start working out how we’re going to use the technologies rather than develop the technologies.”