We’ve come such a long way in the last few years and are getting close to the point where connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technology is part of our daily lives – but there are several ‘surrounding’ challenges that will have to be resolved before passenger services can use this technology .
Passenger trials using autonomous vehicles begin next year with a view to commercial roll-out in five to fifteen years, but will ‘everything else’ be in place by then?
Here are the main challenges that need to be overcome before CAV passenger services become a reality:
1 Regulation. Transport for London is the regulatory body which evaluates each aspect of licensed services and, if we want to put passengers in autonomous vehicles, we need approval from TfL. It’s a huge learning curve for TfL’s team, because as CAV technology develops, there are ticks to put in boxes which don’t yet exist – and it only takes one person who is not familiar with the technology to say ‘no box means no tick, go back to square one’ for the process to stall unnecessarily. So, we have to educate the whole TfL team to think more openly and constructively. It’s a huge hurdle but we have to work closely with the regulator to get over it in order not to hold up all the fantastic progress being made in CAV technology in the UK.
2 The customer proposition. A lot of thought needs to be given to the design of CAV services, particularly ride-sharing, to make sure they will appeal to the general public. Research shows that the concept of an autonomous vehicle is not an issue for the majority – it is the idea of sharing that vehicle with strangers which causes concern. As the MERGE Greenwich report concluded, the interior design and in-vehicle technology will be paramount to success.
3 Customer understanding. Once the customer proposition is finalised, the public will have to be properly educated about CAVs. They will need to be convinced that CAVs are safer than human-driven cars, and why. Around 90% of traffic accidents are caused by human error; so, of the average of 33 people killed in the UK each week, 30 could probably have been saved if the human element were taken out of the equation.
There’s a general misconception about human v autonomous reaction. If a human driver skids and has to choose between hitting an elderly person or a dog, his/her immediate reaction would be to slow down, swerve, or do both. It’s the same for an AV but an AV will simply be able to react much more quickly and reliably. This means the basic legal framework is already in place – provided that appropriate avoiding action is taken, the situation would be the same for either vehicle type, although the onus would be on the AV manufacturer rather than the passenger.
Similarly, a human driver on a familiar route will often have a concentration lapse due to tiredness, boredom, sneezing or just thinking about the day ahead. Reaction time – the time between day-dreaming and regaining control of the vehicle – can be up to six seconds, by which time an accident could have happened. By contrast, an autonomous vehicle is always alert and reacts instantly to any danger.
4 City guidance. Those developing CAV and ride-sharing services need much more input from cities as to what will and won’t work for them, otherwise market forces will dominate and only the most profitable service will emerge. The MERGE Greenwich report called for the Government to set up a City Mobility Task Force so that there can be much more co-ordination between, and communication from, cities on this topic.
5 Technology needs to progress. Although the UK has made enormous strides, we are still lagging behind the US when it comes to testing CAVs, let alone with actual passengers, because other ‘stuff’, like regulation, is getting in the way.
The common thread running through my five ‘obstacles’ is this: we face an enormous learning curve in every area and everyone involved must keep up the pressure to ensure that we, as individuals in all of our respective roles, reach the top of the curve in the shortest possible time. It was just the same with electric vehicles; now they are commonplace and universally accepted. That’s why I firmly believe we have the brainpower and we have the technology, we can do this!