driverless cars in the uk
August 1, 2014

UK To Test Driverless Cars On Public Roads

Eric Hopton for - Your Universe Online

The UK’s Business Secretary Vince Cable, who openly admits he doesn’t even own a Sat Nav, has announced plans to allow driverless cars on Britain’s public roads, reports Georgia Graham for The Telegraph.

The “autonomous vehicles” could hit British streets within six months, perhaps as early as January next year. BBC News has confirmed that the government is asking for cities across the country to bid for three places in a competition to become one of the hosts for trials of the new technology. What seemed like a futuristic dream scenario is rapidly becoming a new reality. Japan has already trialed driverless cars and the US, Nevada, Florida, and California have all given the green light for road tests. Google’s version has reportedly already traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on open highways.

UK cities will be queuing up to win the competition as there will be a £10 million fund to help with the costs and the tests will bring a lot of attention and publicity. The potential for big business to develop the technology needed to turn this into a fully commercial venture is enormous. Speaking at an automotive engineering plant in the Midlands, Cable said “Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society.”

Trials will take place over a period of 18 to 36 months. However, before the new vehicles can be used, there will need to be changes to existing road traffic laws as well as a review of current insurance regulations. Although many features of today’s standard vehicles are already automated, a truly driverless car will see most of the control of main functions including steering, indicators, braking, and acceleration carried out by the car’s own built in computer systems. At the core of this technology are two major advances. Firstly, driverless cars need to “see”, just like a human driver, and their “eyes” are provided by a revolutionary computer vision capability. With 360 degree cameras, GPS, and an array of ultrasonic sensors the vehicle will constantly update its position and orientation in real time. The second innovation is Lidar, or “light detection and ranging” which uses laser technology to detect objects around the vehicle.

Until recently driverless cars retained traditional controls such as steering wheels and brakes which allowed a human driver to retake control instantly if necessary, but newer models take the whole thing to the next level. Google’s latest version has no pedals and no steering wheel.

Road safety concerns remain a big obstacle. In the US the FBI has voiced concerns about potential misuse of the technology by criminals. Driverless vehicles could indeed be a game-changer for law enforcement agencies.

For now, the technology is way ahead of the law-makers and, even though its proponents believe that autonomous vehicles could be safer than human drivers, there is a battle to be won to gain the confidence and credibility of the public. But if the UK plans move forward, all that could be about to change.