The UK Plans to Get Driverless Cars on the Road by 2021

21 March 2018
Posted by Megan Ray Nichols.

Driverless cars used to be something that only appeared in science fiction, but they’re swiftly becoming a reality...

Some cars on the road today are already equipped with self-driving technology that allows them to take over control from the driver under limited circumstances.  Most major tech companies, like Tesla, Uber, and Google, are working toward getting fully autonomous cars on the road in the not too distant future. The UK is taking that one step further, trying to get these vehicles on the road by 2021.  Where are autonomous cars right now and how far do they need to go to reach this goal by the projected end date?

Levels of Autonomy

First, what is actually classified as an autonomous car? Autonomy in cars is broken down into 5 levels:

  • Level 0 — No autonomy. Until now, all cars were at level 0 and had to be controlled by human drivers.
  • Levels 1 and 2 — Advanced driver assistance systems. Lane assistance, parking cameras and emergency braking are all considered types of advanced driver assistance. Most vehicles on the market today have some form of driver assistance as standard equipment. These systems often rely on LSR (liquid silicone rubber) parts and components to protect sensors and improve safety —the same technology that will create the foundation for Level 4 and 5 vehicle autonomy.
  • Level 3 — Partial autonomy. This type of autonomous driving can take over the controls under certain circumstances.  The car can control all major functions without the need for driver input, but a driver is still required to take over in certain circumstances. Tesla’s autopilot is considered Level 3 autonomy.
  • Level 4 — Fully autonomous cars which are still equipped with a steering wheel to enable a manual override. The car can drive and park itself, but it still has the equipment to allow a human driver to take control if need be.
  • Level 5 — Fully autonomous cars no longer equipped with manual steering equipment.

Most autonomous car manufacturers are planning to stop at Level 4 for their vehicles, at least for now.

Current Technology

Where is autonomous car technology currently?

Right now, there are very few fully autonomous cars on the road. As of October 2017, only 53 cities in the United States are either testing or planning on testing self-driving cars on their streets. Cities like London, Paris, Helsinki and San Francisco all have pilot projects in the works, while others like Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, and Buenos Aires are starting to take surveys to assess the possible applications of self-driving car products.

One of the biggest barriers of to getting these programs off the ground is regulatory. There are currently only 21 states that have any sort of laws on the books concerning self-driving cars, and most of them are only at the state level — individual cities have to decide how they will manage self-driving cars on their own roads.

Not all the news surrounding self-driving cars is good though. Recently, a self-driving Uber in Tempe, Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian while in self-driving mode. The accident is still under investigation, but it appears that the car didn’t attempt to slow before the accident, raising concerns about the equipment’s safety program.

There are just as many successes as there are failures though — for every crash, there are successful tests in a variety of cities around the globe.

The UK’s Self Driving Plan

In March of 2018, Jesse Norman, the UK’s Roads Minister, announced the beginning of a program to review any regulatory obstacles preventing the creation of autonomous vehicle programs in the area. This three-year plan will go over current transportation regulations with a microscope and highlight areas where reform is needed to allow for self-driving cars to become the norm in the United Kingdom.

Right now, self-driving cars are being tested in London. Exotica, a British startup, is putting its cars to the test in Gatwick Airport, working on everything from syncing self-driving cars to airplane arrivals to jobs on the tarmac itself.  The majority of these vehicles, called airsides, are stationary until they are called upon to do their job when an airplane arrives or before it leaves the airport.  Switching these airside to autonomous vehicles could make the airport itself more efficient by enabling them to arrive wherever they need to be without having to be retrieved by a human driver.

Oxbotica’s cars are still in their trial stage, but the goal is to have a service on the airfield that could be hailed by workers in need.  If the trial is successful, this could become a reality in the next few years.

Automated vehicles are good for more than just keeping an airport running smoothly though.  They could potentially save lives. It's estimated that in the United States alone, self-driving cars could prevent up to 90 percent of car accidents, saving roughly 30,000 lives a year, because human error is the reason behind most car accidents.  Mechanical failure, weather, or road obstacles cause the remaining 10 percent of car accidents.

Autonomous cars may have moved past infancy, but they’re still in their childhood and still need human drivers behind the wheel to ensure that accidents don’t happen. Plans like the one in the works in the UK are just the first step — figuring out where autonomous cars fit in the grand scheme of things and what laws or rules need to be implemented to ensure that these vehicles can safely integrate into roads around the world.

The UK is quickly moving to the forefront of self-driving car technology.  This industry could change the way people in the country move from place to place — while helping to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels in conjunction with the Paris Climate Accords. The UK is hoping to have self-driving cars on the road by 2021 — it remains to be seen who will take the lead in this constantly changing industry... 


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