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Britain Will Rewrite Its Traffic Laws for Robocars' Sake

Tailgating? You say that like it's a *bad* thing

2 min read
A woman looks at a prototype of a golf-cart-like, fully enclosed, driverless pod.
The Patherfinder driverless pod, which will be the first autonomous vehicle in the United Kingdom to operate in pedestrian areas
Photo: Dominic Lipinski/AP Photo

Britain plans to rewrite its traffic laws to account for robot cars, which take an all-too-literal approach to rules. 

“If everyone obeyed exactly what it said in the Highways Code, the roads would probably grind to a halt,” said Graham Parkhurst, head of an academic research program in Bristol, in an interview with the Telegraph. Parkhurst is also working on one of four pilot programs in British cities, each of which is testing out a different kind of low-speed vehicle.

Some changes will put a little more wiggle room in the law, to help robocars deal with aggressive human drivers. That way the robots won’t linger forever before changing lanes, nosing into an intersection, or laying claim to a parking spot. Other changes will redefine as legal such practices as tailgating, at least when done safely, as when robocars “draft” the car in front—a strategy known as platooning—to save energy that would otherwise be lost to air resistance. 

Britain’s flurry of activity on this front follows similar pronouncements in Germany and the Netherlands, and earlier ones in Japan, Korea and various states in the U.S.  Britain’s latest move goes  further than any other country has to welcome driverless cars to its roads, but the competition isn’t over by any means. All these policy shifts are mainly meant to improve the curb appeal of the various governments to companies developing autonomous vehicles.

The current British test cars are like the Google car, but less ambitious, because they mainly stay on sidewalks and go no faster than a golf cart. That makes everything much easier. At slower speeds you have much more time to react; among pedestrians you can stop at the least hint of a problem without getting rear-ended by the guy in back.

The four models use the entire range of sensors found on Google’s car, including laser range-finding, or lidar—and even add one or two that only make sense in close quarters and slow speeds. One car, for instance, even has touch-sensitive strips.

It’s all very good as an experiment, as much to probe pedestrian behavior as anything else. But maybe it’s better to think of it as part of a worldwide scramble by governments intent on getting their transportation sectors onto the on-ramp.

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Chinese Joint Venture Will Begin Mass-Producing an Autonomous Electric Car

With the Robo-01, Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely aim for a fully self-driving car

4 min read
A black car sits against a white backdrop decorated with Chinese writing. The car’s doors are open, like a butterfly’s wings. Two charging stations are on the car’s left; two men stand on the right.

The Robo-01 autonomous electric car shows off its butterfly doors at a reveal to the media in Beijing, in June 2022.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters/Alamy

In October, a startup called Jidu Automotive, backed by Chinese AI giant Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely, officially released an autonomous electric car, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition. In 2023, the car will go on sale.

At roughly US $55,000, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition is a limited edition, cobranded with China’s Lunar Exploration Project. It has two lidars, a 5-millimeter-range radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and 12 high-definition cameras. It is the first vehicle to offer on-board, AI-assisted voice recognition, with voice response speeds within 700 milliseconds, thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8295 chip.

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