DRIVERLESS cars could soon be rolling off the factory line – allowing us to read, watch films, and even take a nap as we are ferried to our destination.
Here, we take a look at self-driving vehicles and examine how they work and when they will arrive in the UK.
When will driverless cars come to the UK?
The Modern Transport Bill outlines steps that are being taken to ensure the UK is at the forefront of driverless car technology.
And in April it was announced that 100 plucky motorists will take a prototype driverless car on a test run around a two-mile circuit over three weeks near London’s O2 Arena.
It has now emerged that driverless lorries could soon be on Britain’s motorways after ministers announced an £8.1 million fund for trials.
The plans will allow computer-controlled vehicles to be driven in a “platoon” just yards apart from each other, which the Government hope will save money and reduce pollution.
Up to three wirelessly connected HGVs will travel in convoy – with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle’s computer.
The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) will begin trials of the technology on test tracks, but these trials are expected to move to major roads by the end of 2018.
Thatcham, the motor insurer’s automotive research centre, has also identified the phases of their own introduction for driverless cars:
- 2017: Many cars today are fitted with cameras and radars that monitor the road ahead and warn of hazards. If a driver fails to react to something in the road, the car can suddenly slam its own brakes down. This technology can also drive a car at low speed, control steering, the accelerator, and brakes.
- 2018: This is predicted to be a landmark year as regulations permit hands-off driving on the motorway for the first time.
- 2021: Thatcham predict fully autonomous driving will be a reality in five years. It will allow people to read a book, eat a pizza, and clip their nails whilst the car drives them around. Legislation will need to be updated to allow these cars on the road.
- 2025: The insurance firm claims all typical driving environments will be covered by driverless cars at this point. This means cars will be able to negotiate traffic lights, junctions, and roundabouts. Drivers will not need to touch their controls for the entire journey.
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How do self-driving cars work?
Different brands ranging from Google to Ford are planning to make driverless cars, and so there is bound to be some variation in the vehicles that eventually roll onto the market.
In a nutshell, self-driving cars have technology fitted that allows them to navigate and be aware of their environment without the need for a human driver.
This means each vehicle is fitted with a GPS unit, an internal navigation system and sensors including a laser rangefinder, radar, and video.
Sensor data allows them to create a 3D image of their environment.
The majority of self-driving cars have “deliberate architecture” installed – meaning they are capable of making intelligent decisions, even working out the best route to their destination.
Once the decision is made the journey is dissected into commands which are fed into devices called actuators.
These actuators control the steering, braking and throttle.
The car’s internal map will include the current and predicted static locations of buildings, traffic lights and stop signs.
It will also be able to identify moving objects such as other cars and pedestrians.
What problems have driverless cars faced?
Manufacturers have made huge progress in making fully automated cars a reality on our roads – but they are still facing technological barriers.
GPS can be unreliable and vision systems are limited when it comes to understanding certain situations on our roads.
Changing weather can also affect the ability of cars to identify or track moving objects.
Problems around manufacturing could also be encountered, with it warned that there will not be enough engineers to keep up with the demand.
How safe are self-driving cars?
There is still some way to go before self-driving cars are safe to drive on our roads.
Tesla test driver Joshua Brown became the first person to die in a self-driving car in 2016.
He was driving a Tesla on autopilot when, in bright sunshine, its sensors failed to detect a large 18-wheel truck and trailer on a highway.
Tesla said the car was in its “public beta phase” meaning the software was being stress-tested by members of the public so that bugs could be flushed out.
Examples of self-driving car safety issues include:
- Roadworks: In April 2015 the manufacturers Delphi sent an autonomous car on a 3,400 mile trip across the US. Engineers had to take control of the car for 50 miles because of unmarked lanes and roadworks.
- Sandbags: In February last year one of Google’s self-driving cars smashed into a bus as it tried to navigate sandbags. The car had predicted the bus but anticipated it would yield.
- Hacking: As cars become more hi-tech they will become more vulnerable to hacking. With driverless vehicles, the extra computers, internet connectivity and sensors increase the possible vulnerabilities. One affect of this is that cars could be fooled into detecting objects that aren’t there and may stop and slow down for no reason.
- Weather: Adverse weather can create visibility problems that reduce the range and accuracy of sensors.