The rise of Autonomous Vehicles

Part one: where are we now?

We can be in little doubt that Autonomous Vehicles (AV) will play an important role in the future of the automotive industry. The UK government has promised to have autonomous cars on the roads by 2021, and with rapid advances in technology, numerous pilot schemes are already underway in order to make this goal a reality.

The reasons behind this move are varied, but the predominant objective of the technology is to increase safety on the roads. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. Clearly, reducing the potential for human error makes a lot of sense.

In this three-part series, we will explore the progress being made in the development and testing of AVs; the challenges and barriers to their introduction, including current public perception, and the role that the insurance industry has to play.

First, let’s take a look at how far AVs have come to-date and some of the challenges that lie ahead.

Direct Line Group recently commissioned some research with insight consultancy, Britain Thinks. Qualitative interviews were undertaken with 10 experts with a perspective on AVs and driverless technology, and the findings showed consensus amongst these experts that the technology required to bring AVs to the roads is either here already or very close to completion. All agreed that AVs could soon become a widespread reality in the UK. Indeed, many new cars already have technology – ‘Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems’ (ADAS) - which will act as the building blocks to fully autonomous systems.

And it is here, as our research exposes, that the transition to full autonomy becomes somewhat complicated.

US-based SAE International define 5 different ‘levels’ of automation:

Some vehicle manufacturers are favouring a Y gradual transition through each level, eventually leading to widespread acceptance. However, our research reveals that the intervening levels may actually hinder the transition to levels 4 & 5. Rather than moving through the levels in an orderly manner, some experts feel that drivers may require immediate exposure to Autonomous Vehicles. This is because level 3 vehicles could cause drivers to become overly-reliant on self-driving aids, and this complacency could mean that suddenly taking back control from their vehicle could be difficult for them.

For this reason the ABI and Thatcham prefer to categorise the vehicles as either Assisted or Autonomous and state that it is only when a vehicle can operate autonomously without the driver being the fail-safe should it be described as Autonomous.

And of course, the challenges ahead for AV do not just involve the car itself. We also need to think about the roads they will use. Infrastructure is important because the technology won’t work if it can’t navigate potholes, roundabouts and zebra crossings. Some of the experts interviewed felt that a gap exists between the technology and the infrastructure and many felt this was going to be a major challenge for the widespread introduction of AVs – especially in the UK, with our narrow roads and congested cities. There was a perception that some of the technology being developed is optimized for a US market where the roads are very different. However, our experts also expressed an optimism that testing in the UK will catch up.

The speed at which we will see the introduction of AVs was another topic up for debate in our research. Several experts felt that, unlike the gradual transition seen with electric cars, the introduction of AVs to UK roads may require a more drastic and sudden change. While a ‘transition phase’ might be helpful to allow the public to adapt to AVs, this was felt to bring significant difficulties, including AVs having to contend with human error, which limits their potential safety benefit. Some experts felt that a transition phase would also likely see a pace that is very slow at first, followed by exponential growth as the multiplication of AVs on the road facilitates their further growth. Infrastructure and regulation would then need to find a way to keep up with this ‘surge’ in pace.

We, like the experts interviewed for our research, believe that there are significant benefits to the introduction of AVs and feel that, with time, all of the challenges still remaining in terms of the technology and infrastructure required will be overcome. But perhaps there is an even more significant challenge to the successful introduction of AVs to our roads: public perception.

In our next piece in this series, we will explore what may be behind the current scepticism within the public discourse, and discuss what can be done to help challenge these perceptions.

Direct Line Group is sponsoring Driverless:Who is in control? A new exhibition at the Science Museum.

To find out more about this click here