Self-driving cars might still seem the thing of science fiction for many, but the field is quickly advancing and new government initiatives mean that streets in the UK could soon be graced by these autonomous automobiles. We look at how the story has unfolded so far, and what the future holds for driverless cars, not just in the UK but everywhere.

Update 15 March: The House of Lords’ science and technology committee has called for motorists to sit new tests for driverless cars because they pose a safety risk in semi-autonomous mode. Emma Wright, Commercial Technology Partner at Kemp Little LLP said, “Whether new examinations are brought in to test drivers’ ability to use autonomous cars or not, the law is having to play catch-up in terms of who would be held responsible for incidents. The problem lies in the law’s definition of ‘driver’ which needs to be refined for the autonomous vehicle generation where the software may be in complete control at the time of an incident. Fully autonomous vehicles should simplify this issue, but at present there is more of a grey area because vehicles rely on a mix of autonomous features and human control. Human nature means that drivers quickly overestimate the car’s abilities and ‘switch off’ rather than paying attention to the road ahead – despite all the guidance to the contrary from manufacturers.”

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When are driverless cars coming to the UK?

For the last few years the UK government has been slowly increasing its financial commitment towards self-driving car research. In 2013 the UK Treasury’s Autumn statement contained an allocation of £10 million to the sector, supporting projects that were already underway. This was increased to £20 million. While these amounts are  nothing compared to the funds Google has at its disposal, it does signal the seriousness with which the area is being taken, and has enabled many projects in the British Isles to continue developing these important technologies. The past couple of years has already seen a number of road-going tests taking place around the country, and these could increase in frequency as production costs diminish and the software matures.

driverless cars in the UK

One of the major obstacles in the way of self-driving automation is that of legislation. The law can often be slow to catch up with technological progress, and when the safety of lives are involved it can be even more cautious. It’s significant then that the UK government has been praised by Google for its progressive approach to this often painful area. Ministers are reported to have met with representatives from the Californian company a number of times, and in 2015 the Department of Transport published an official code of practice for testing self-driving cars on public roads. In February 2016 the Deputy Mayor for Transport, Isabel Dedring, announced that discussions were taking place with Google about making London a trial city to test out the company’s driverless vehicles.

More recently Nissan has announced that it's waiting for final approval from an undisclosed London Council to put some real driverless cars into action. The trials, which are due to start shortly, will use a modified version of Nissan's LEAF electric car. They won't be open to members of the public to try out, but will be for government officials and technical experts. There will also be a driver on board at all times. Importantly, this is the first time a driverless car will be on European roads in a 'live' environment as previous autonomous vehicle trials have been conducted in the US and China. 

Also, Amazon has been granted a patent for 'lane assignments' for autonomous vehicles. It isn't developing a driverless vehicle as such, but is clearly working towards a fleet of driverless delivery lorries. These may not deliver goods to your doorstep, instead moving products between its warehouses. The patent concerns a network that can communicate with driverless vehicles and inform them of the direction of traffic flow in a reversible lane. Clearly it would be a disaster if an autonomous delivery lorry was unaware of which way it should be driving along a particular road at a certain time.

It appears that at least some of the team working on Prime Air - Amazon's drone deliveries - is involved in this new road management system, which also seeks to ensure the self-driving trucks are using the most appropriate lane to minimise traffic slow downs. So hopefully this would mean no more slow-motion lorry 'races' as drivers try to overtake one another.

Driverless Cars in the UK

Various intelligent and autonomous vehicle trials are happening (and have already happened) in Britian. MOVE UK is a three year initiative which began in April 2016, and will test out new self-driving software on the roads around Greenwich. The project has backing and involvement from Jaguar Land Rover, Bosch, the Transport Research Laboratory, Direct Line, The Floow, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The aim of the project is to refine the way a driverless car sees its environment and reacts the various situations. We assume this will include driving up to roundabouts while being bamboozled by swarms of Deliveroo riders coming from all directions, if it wants to have any hope of authenticity.

Trials in the cars - which are based on the Ultra Pods that run on rails at Heathrow - took place between June and August, with the aim of finding out how people feel about travelling in driverless cars. 

Another project in Coventry will see 40 miles of road fitted with communications technologies to aid self-driving vehicles, while in Milton Keynes the LUTZ Pathfinder project has already been testing three driverless Pods on the roads, with plans to extend this to forty that will be split between Milton Keynes and Coventry.

Driverless cars UK - Greenwich trial public

Which companies are developing driverless cars?

It’s fair to say that the majority of research in driverless cars this area has been conducted in the US, with Google leading the field. The internet giant’s Self-Driving Car Project has clocked up well over a million miles, with a fleet of modified Lexus SUVs and bespoke prototype vehicles traversing the tarmac of certain streets in California, Texas, and Washington.

As of yet, these remain limited test areas, and it will still be a few years before you’ll be able to walk into a dealership and order your own robotic chauffeur. So far safety records have been mostly excellent. In February 2016 a Google driverless car hit a bus in California and, while there were no casualties and this was the first time a driverless car had caused a smash, it isn't the first reported incident.

In mid-May 2016 it was reported that Google had patented a new sticky layer that will cover the surface of the front of the driverless car. Rather than catching bugs, this sticky substance is designed to catch pedestrians - but only when the car and pedestrian's paths are accidentally crossed. By adhering the passenger to the front of the car, Google hopes to prevent them coming into any further trouble, such as being flung into a nearby passing bus. It will also help to constrain the movement of the pedestrian and bring both the pedestrian and the car to a more gradual stop.

In December 2016, Google announced the renaming of its driverless car project to Waymo changing it from a research project to business enterprise that will need to turn a profit. Although no new details were revealed, the mission is to bring the technology and product to market.

"We'll continue to have access of infrastructure and resources Alphabet provides, but we also have this feeling of being a venture-backed startup," said John Krafcik, formerly CEO of Google Cars. 

"We are all in on fully driverless solutions, that's what we're all about." He said adding that driver assist technologies, which can ask humans to take control, don't interest Waymo. However, the car might still need a steering wheels and pedals.

Bloomberg reported in August 2016 that Uber, the popular app based taxi service in major cities around the world, is to deploy a fleet of driverless cars in the US city of Pittsburgh. While this is a small preliminary trial, with drivers manning the front seat in case of mishaps, it points towards a major push for driverless cars to become a reality over a fantasy.

The automotive industry appears convinced that driverless cars are the next big thing, and investment and political interest continues to grow at pace. Other companies such as Volvo, Audi, Land Rover and Bosch have already begun their own research, even Apple has been hard at work on a driverless vehicle which it now appears to have abandoned. 

Ford announced at the end of 2016 that it will start testing its driverless technology at its Dunton Technical Centre in Essex, and also at its facilities in Aachen and Cologne in Germany. All have been test locations for Ford's driver assist technologies, so it makes sense it will develop autonomous vehicles there too.

Volvo said in April 2016 that it planned to take 100 self-driving cars to China, where everyday people would put them to the test in real-life conditions. China is fast-tracking plans to get self-driving vehicles on the road, with a new Intel Labs startup taking on the task, along with the existing efforts of Baidu and Yutong, reports Gizmodo.

Are driverless cars a good thing?

It might seem odd thing, especially when you’re trusting your life to some software and sensors travelling at speed, but safety is a major selling point when it comes to driverless cars. While road accidents in the UK did fall slightly in 2015, there were still a reported 1,780 deaths and 23,700 people seriously injured. So far there have been very few reported accidents involving driverless vehicles, and in the cases that have been reported it seems that most of them are the fault of a collision with a normal car, and that the blame lay with the human involved.

Of course it’s still early days, and many of these driverless vehicles have been tested in reasonably peaceful locations rather than the angry, unpredictable environment of a large city at rush hour. That’s why the announced projects are so important. If the technology can adapt to an everyday driving scenario, and show itself to be less prone to road rage, careless driving, or speeding, then lives could well be saved in the process. There are still many miles to go and obstacles to overcome, but with the likes of Toyota, Audi, and Tesla saying they intend to release driverless- or driver-assisted cars in the next five years, it seems we won’t have too long to wait. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is confident that this is the future, and posed the question of whether in a few years time governments will be debating banning manually driven cars all together.

Driverless trucks in the UK

It's not just self-driving cars that will soon be on our roads; the Guardian reported how a convoy of self-driving trucks just made its first European cross-border trip. More than a dozen semi-automated smart trucks made by six of Europe's largest manufacturers arrived in Rotterdam from places such as Sweden and Germany on 6 April, it said. These trucks were driven in 'platoons', connected wirelessly, where the first truck determines the route and speed. However, a human was still required to be onboard.