The once-distant concept of purchasable driverless cars has now become a reality that is right around the corner – and the Smart Mobility Living Lab is at the forefront of testing to ensure vehicles (and their owners) are safe on the roads
Some 15 years ago across the vast exsiccated expanses of the Mojave Desert, 21 hopeful teams entered what was the first-ever DARPA Grand Challenge, a gruelling 240-kilometre route designed to push their autonomous vehicles to their limits, with the goal to conquer the terrain and win a $1m jackpot prize.
Featuring cutting-edge technology from some of the world’s most sophisticated technological institutions, preliminary testing of the autonomous robots’ attempts at the course painted a stark picture for what was ahead: six driverless cars failed to advance through initial phases of the contest; of the 15 that remained, one car flipped upside down in the starting area and had to be withdrawn. Just three hours into the 10-hour event, only four vehicles remained operational – all of which failed to complete the course, with Red Team’s Sandstorm travelling 11.9km, the farthest length reached.
Kicking into gear
Despite there being no winner and no cash prize awarded, the event was hailed for igniting innovation and interest in autonomous vehicles. Just 15 years later, in 2019, the idea of Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) roaming our streets is very much a reality. The major car manufacturers, alongside industry-leading self-driving manufacturer Waymo and automotive electric car producer Tesla, have all heavily invested in their CAV teams in recent years, with the latter already providing automated features such as self-parking in its models.
But despite this shift towards greater automated control for cars, public perception of safety remains a hurdle the CAV industry needs to surpass before it can truly harness consumers’ piqued interest: a 2019 survey by law firm Perkins Coie LLP and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International found that manufacturers believed consumers’ perception of safety to be the biggest impediment to growth of driverless cars over the next five years.
In ensuring the public that autonomous vehicles are safe to use daily on roads around the globe, comprehensive testing and evaluation of CAV technology will need to take place – and the Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL) in London, led by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), is doing just that.
The TRL, a transport research institute working across a range of technical areas within the transport domain, is at the forefront of CAV testing to make sure customers have all of the information they need before making the decision to buy a driverless car.
“The Living Lab is very much an industry-leading initiative which is focused on bringing CAVs onto public roads by enabling real-world testing, demonstration, public trials, and technology evaluation. Through the Living Lab we will also support the widest range of new mobility solutions and services, including micro-mobility to sharing models, ultra-low emissions, and urban logistics,” said Iwan Parry, market development lead for new mobility at the TRL.
“SMLL will specifically address the crucial next steps in the development of automated system vehicles, where exposure to real-world scenarios enhances and accelerates the testing and development of automated vehicle systems. Real-world scenarios will be a key component in how these technologies will be evaluated and ultimately approved for widespread deployment in the future. As multiple automated mobility technologies approach real-world deployment, such evaluations and approvals will provide independent evidence to licencing authorities, insurers, passengers, investors, and other stakeholders of differences in real-world system performance. That’s a critical element of what we’re doing.”
Real-world scenarios will be a key component in how these technologies will be evaluated and ultimately approved for widespread deployment in the future
SMLL in London is preparing to undertake testing on real roads in the centre of Greenwich, as well as the Olympic Park in Stratford. Last month, TRL announced 24 kilometres of existing roads to be monitored by live CCTV and sensors at the roadside for collection and analysis of data, and to provide and evaluate vehicle-to-infrastructure communications in real-world conditions.
James Long, solutions architect at the lab, has day-to-day technical responsibility for the design and build of the public testbed. “We’re instrumenting those roads so that we can gather information about how automated vehicles behave, how they operate in different road environments, and how they interact with the public – both from the perspective of the vehicle itself, and as new mobility services develop,” he explained.
“It’s really about creating the infrastructure to generate the evidence needed to understand those behaviours.”
David Hynd, the living lab’s chief scientist, noted that the end goal is to ultimately decide if the vehicle is fit for public use: “We’re trying to apply the experience from history into understanding how regulation of automated vehicles might look – so what sort of things we need to do to determine that the automated vehicle is safe, or if you can allow a fleet to operate using an automated vehicle. We’re exploring how we make that decision and determine whether a system is ‘good to go.’”
This is a UK-first for autonomous cars being tested on the country’s roads, a pioneering advancement in the tilt towards smart technology-centric driving – and something the supply chain of the CAV industry has been vocal about securing in the past. SMLL’s own research study concluded that 84% of industry decision-makers believe the UK needs its own testing facilities, and SMLL is at the forefront of efforts to slake the demand.
But how, on the automotive industry side, have manufacturers been faring in their development of automated technologies? Iwan argued that in the past five years, companies such as Tesla have implemented major advances in automotive technology by providing technologies which can be activated and updated remotely on demand. This capability has distinguished Tesla as a leader in both connected and automated technology and left an industry that is used to providing a fixed product with limited upgrade potential racing to catch up.
“It’s these industry-changing developments that have been enabled by the connectivity of the vehicles,” he added. “As we move forward, I think we’re going to find that this is becoming an increasingly important element of how vehicles are deployed and the capabilities that we expect them to have – for example, being able to upgrade driver assistance systems to include automated capabilities or to enable information exchange with other vehicles in hazardous situations.
“And equally, the ability of those vehicles to communicate with infrastructure; for them to advise them on things that they might not be able to see, that could be over the horizon and could be coming quite quickly.
The prodigious potential the CAV industry has will only be enhanced further by the emergence of 5G connectivity. Expected to be 100 times faster than current 4G connectivity and primed by some as a catalyst behind advancements in vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, expectations are high for the on-road benefits the new supercharged connectivity could bring to autonomous vehicles.
If you create the platform and the ability to do something, and that capability is utilised to provide both services that are perhaps safety-critical and useful for the vehicle… then that will make the whole vehicle and travelling experience more pleasant
Iwan explained that 5G’s large data capacity, very low latency, and reliability are key benefits for CAV technology. From a data volume point of view, he said, long-distance journeys up and down the country can be transformed by the turbocharging of streaming content into devices in the vehicle –creating new ways to enhance journey experience for all passengers or providing a welcome distraction for bored children (or adults.)
“But also there is a technical and engineering opportunity there for the vehicles, particularly as the vehicles themselves are getting more complex and capable,” he added. “There’s a view of future connected vehicles that if they communicate their route plan, for example, to a central network, the network can help to optimise the speed, efficiency, and overall impact of its journey and those of all other vehicles.
“The benefits of low latency then become very important in terms of being able to communicate urgent and potentially safety-critical information. For example, the requirement of very low latency, very quick communications from vehicle-to-infrastructure to say: ‘I’m now disabled, I can’t move from this current location, please inform the other vehicles around me,’ or communication from one vehicle to another to say: ‘I’ve just hit my brakes and I’m braking very hard, you’re only 20 metres away so you need to break very hard as well.’ It’s that sort of communication and situational awareness.”
David also pointed out another dimension to the benefits of 5G technology, highlighting its ability to communicate to devices used by fellow road users – cyclists, pedestrians, and other cars – being able to rapidly update the vehicle on the surrounding infrastructure.
“It’s very useful for fuel efficiency and congestion as well,” he said. “People always talk about being able to ride the green wave through the traffic lights by having the communication in the vehicle and the traffic light system that will know where you can go: if it drives at 20, you will get to a green light, rather than going at 30 and then having to wait at a red light.”
The turning point for 5G to reach its immense potential, Iwan claimed, is that when the connectivity system is fully deployed and operational, the applications and benefits for road users will come with relative ease.
“It’s like the development of the iPhone – all of the apps came afterward,” Iwan noted. “But if you create the platform and the ability to do something, and that capability is utilised to provide both services that are perhaps safety-critical and useful for the vehicle, but also services which are beneficial and make your life easier, then that will make the whole vehicle and travelling experience more pleasant.”
CAVs, 5G connectivity, and Internet of Things-centric technology: the emergence of these capabilities into daily society would lead many to think the current system of travel on our roads is becoming senescent because of its nature – but what do the end customers for autonomous technology, the government, and the general public think of a driverless future? A MoneySuperMarket survey of 2,000 UK adults conducted earlier this year found that more than three-quarters (76%) of people feared not being in control of their own vehicle, whilst more than two-thirds said they lacked the trust in technology.
We would expect to see an evolution of opinion through time as the connected and automated features in our vehicles become more commonplace
Yet this public lack of trust in the driverless cars is the exact reason why Iwan, David, and James strive to test and provide detail for CAV technology every single day. Iwan believes the UK Government is highly motivated to support industry growth, reflected by the support and investment being injected into the sector.
For public opinion, Iwan argued that it will take time for perceptions of autonomous cars to change. He explained: “I think that today’s man on the street would have a range of opinions on automated driving, ranging from ‘actually, I drive my car fairly well, I don’t think I need it’ to ‘I trust a connected automated vehicle to operate, I can relax and be on my phone.’
“My hope always is that we’re able to create evidence that is able to inform people’s opinions and help them have an informed opinion about the capability and benefits of the technology. We would expect to see an evolution of opinion through time as the connected and automated features in our vehicles become more commonplace.”
David also outlined the generational impact the movement towards CAV could have for enthusiasm in the cars. “Someone my age is going to be more inclined to grow up driving and get quite used to the driving process, whereas now it’s more difficult to afford a driving license and insurance is much more expensive when you start out,” he claimed.
“But some younger people talk about driving as something that gets in the way of things that they want to do – messaging friends and so forth. Driving is not something that they really want to do. So the idea of having a vehicle handle that for them is great.”
A CAV future?
On the scope for SMLL’s future, Iwan touched on the sheer scale of possibilities that the team will be researching that can benefit industry, businesses, policymakers and members of society. “The development of automated mobility will have far-reaching consequences for many businesses and could transform significant sectors of the economy the SMLL is at the forefront of, enabling the early introduction of this technology and evaluating its impact,” he said. “It is vital for all stakeholders to recognise and understand the potential opportunities and threats that this disruption could release. That is why we’re investing in and building the Living Lab: to enable development and deployment of technology and to give us insight into the impact that these technologies could have.
“That involves providing specific services that we’re developing now to test the first technologies so that we can learn and create solutions for technologies that don’t yet exist, and to support the developers of technologies who aren’t fully focused on how to undertake testing in the real world. We’re deploying our vision right now.”
The development of automated mobility will have far-reaching consequences for many businesses and could transform significant sectors of the economy
David’s point on generational perceptions changing over time is a pertinent one: in the same way that 15 years ago at the DARPA Grand Challenge the idea of road-legal vehicles was still in its infancy, it could be said that in another 15 years the next generation will look at driverless cars as a necessity, as commonplace, and as a staple of daily life. But one thing we are positive of in 2019 is that the TRL, and the Living Lab as part of it, is ready to spearhead investment in an exciting – and potentially limitless – sector.