Self Driving Cars On UK Roads?… Not So Fast

The UK government expects self driving cars to be on the roads as soon as 2021…

In what could be suggested is an overtly optimistic perspective from the UK government, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling expects that fully self driving cars will be widely available in the next three to four years. In 2018, at an event hosted by the Association of British Insurers, Grayling sais that he considered the UK to be a world leader in the autonomous revolution. This may well be true, but whether fully autonomous adoption will happen so quickly is debatable to say the least… D/SRUPTION spoke to four industry leading experts to find out why.

Defining self drive

One of the biggest problems when making sweeping statements about the advent of autonomous vehicles is that autonomy comes in many forms. In some environments, autonomous vehicles are already in use.

“You could argue today that we see autonomous vehicles at airports, mines, and in some ports,” says BP‘s Vice President of Advanced Mobility, Roy Williamson. “This is one of the key challenges in this space. There are lots of individual examples and use cases, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the mass adoption of this technology and its impact on the economy.”

Grayling, however, was talking about full autonomy. Taking a more realistic standpoint, Williamson predicts that autonomous vehicles will begin to have a significant impact at around the 2030 mark.

“It’ll be the end of the 2020s into the 2030s when we see a significant impact of autonomous vehicles,” he says. “They will first appear in specific controlled environments and use cases, and slowly adopted from 2030 onwards.”

The trouble with technology

Williamson is under no illusions about the scope of the challenges that AV adoption has to face. While some of the technology is available today, he states that policy issues and technological barriers still exist. But what do other experts say?

Earlier this year, D/SRUPTION spoke to Charlie Henderson, transport expert at PA Consulting, about the realistic timeframe for AVs. Much like Williamson, one of Henderson’s main concerns is that technology is still lagging.

“In many places, the edges, centre of the road, and signage are not well defined. Semi autonomous vehicles are currently being tested in an environment where the roads have been scanned or the road environment is very well defined. The challenge is to get autonomous vehicles to operate on roads where markings are less than ideal, or where road markings are obstructed by snow or puddles. These considerations will only be resolved through rigorous testing and innovation – and that takes time.”

Aside from technological flaws, policy remains a tricky topic. There is currently no single authority responsible for working out how to regulate self driving vehicles, and this is delaying development and adoption. Even within unified geographic areas, different areas fall under different jurisdictions. Another key barrier is public opinion. Jonathan Carrier, VP of Corporate Development at AeroMobil and D/SRUPTION’s expert contributor, says that it isn’t necessarily technology that stands in the way.

“Societal acceptance of autonomous vehicles, and legislation associated with their operation, will be the biggest hurdle to overcome,” he says. “As consumers we require human interaction to build trust. It’s why brands exist, to project a personality that people trust. Trust is at the heart of any new technological introduction.”

Carrier explains that this is why manufacturers such as Ford and Jaguar Land Rover, and systems integrators such as Waymo, are considering how the vehicle interacts with its external environment and how it communicates with other road users. Dr Benny Cheung, specialist in consumer psychology and behavioural economics, also views public opinion as vital.

“Our research at Decision Technology has found that AV evoked one of the highest levels of negative emotions of all our previous topics, certainly more so than the prospect of Donald Trump winning the US Presidential election, and was only narrowly beaten by North Korea being in possession of nuclear weapons,”  Cheung says. “For something as controversial as AV, another 10 years may still be too soon.”

A global outlook

Even if 2021 is a realistic benchmark for widespread autonomous vehicle use, who’s to say it will happen in the UK? The US has proven to be a fantastic testing ground for AVs, with its wide open spaces and sympathetic local authorities. However, following a statement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it is clear that the lengthy standards and rulemaking process has negatively impacted uptake there. Different locations fall under different jurisdiction, so individual states are left to regulate themselves. In the US, it seems likely that the next three to four years will see the consolidation of self drive standards and safety guidelines rather than the full blown adoption of AVs.

Across the pond, the situation appears to be little better. European regulations are even more challenging as there are three different European commissioners leading distinct conversations about AVs. As in the US, members states regulate independently. That said, there have been attempts to unify European efforts via the 2016 Master Plan on Co-Operative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS).

In China, advanced mobility initiatives are largely government led. The country is taking a realistic approach to AV forecasts and aims to make 10 per cent of cars fully autonomous by 2030. Like China, the drive for autonomous vehicles in Japan and Singapore is also spearheaded by their respective governments. This arguably gives Asia an advantage over Europe and the US, where separate companies lead the disruption. Competition is certainly healthy, but the challenges facing self drive technology won’t be solved by one company alone. The enthusiasm of official governing bodies could help to propel adoption in Asia – but even then, Asian expectations are far less optimistic than the three to four year mark.

With so many hurdles to overcome and so much uncertainty surrounding legislation, it seems optimistic to suggest that fully self driving cars will hit the roads in the next few years… And it sounds as if Carrier, Cheung, Henderson and Williamson all agree.

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