UK Shifts its Self-Driving Car Research Into a Higher Gear

Image: Transport Systems Catapult
Self-driving LUTZ Pathfinder pods for footpaths will be among the vehicles tested.

British efforts aimed at developing self-driving cars are likely to speed up with the announcement of the four UK locations where driverless cars will be tested. The tests, which begin in January, will last as long as 36 months. The government announced £9 million (US $14 million) in funding for the work—on top of the £10m that was committed to the project in July. The funds will support three consortia (one of which will conduct its tests in two places in the same region).

Greenwich, in southeast London, will be the site of the Gateway project run by the Transport Research Laboratory, General Motors, and the AA and RAC motoring associations. The group will examine what it will take to field automated passenger shuttles and try out technology designed to enable autonomous valet parking. Just as important will be the group’s study of how human drivers handle the transition from being in control of a vehicle to letting a car’s computer’s handle the driving.

"The combination of TRL's independent expertise; robust, reliable testing protocols and driving simulation facilities alongside the diverse and high calibre qualities of our consortium means we can safely demonstrate automated vehicles to build acceptance and trust in this revolutionary technology," TRL's chief executive, Rob Wallis, told the BBC.

Bristol is home to the Venturer consortium, whose membership includes several local government councils plus Atkins, the insurance company AXA, Williams Advanced Engineering, Fusion Processing, the Center for Transport and Society, the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), the University of Bristol, and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. They’ll figure out whether robocars can reduce congestion and make roads safer. Another important research focus will be assessing public reaction to autonomous vehicles and, because an insurer is in the group, determining who to hold responsible in the event of a collision.

Roads in Milton Keynes and Coventry will be used by the UK Autodrive program, whose leading members are Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, and the engineering consultancy Arup. The group has plans to test self-driving cars on roads, and automated shuttle pods in areas designated mainly for foot traffic. One of its goals will be to create the additions to road infrastructure that will be necessary to give cars’ onbard navigation systems pinpoint accuracy.

“Our plan with the practical demonstration phases is to start testing with single vehicles on closed roads, and to build up to a point where all road users, as well as legislators, the police and insurance companies, are confident about how driverless pods and fully and partially autonomous cars can operate safely on UK roads,” Tim Armitage from Arup told BBC.

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