UK Watch: Test Driving Autonomous Cars, Trials Begin This Year

Written by Raquel Cool

The United Kingdom recently announced plans to start test-driving autonomous vehicles on public roads. Is the car of the future a self-driven one? – The U.K. government is slated to begin test driving autonomous – self-driving – cars on public roads by the end of 2013.

These trials are part of a £28 billion investment by the U.K. government to reduce congestion, according to a report released by the U.K. Department of Transport.

The study’s authors predict that by 2040, semi-autonomous and autonomous control of vehicles will be part of life. The report also states that vehicles will not only communicate with the roadways, but with each other as well.

“The notion of reading the newspapers and drinking a cup of coffee is a bit far-fetched. It’s early days and driverless cars won’t be mainstream for a long time,” the head of roads and transport policy at the AA motoring organization in the U.K.,  Paul Watters, told BBC News.

“But we have a variety of in-car technologies already, including guided parking and adaptive cruise control, so fully driverless cars will be the culmination of a gradual evolution, not an overnight revolution,” Watters adds.

Oxford University is test driving its autonomous adaptation of a Nissan Leaf.  The car’s technology works by learning to recognize its surroundings. “A key word for us is that the car gains ‘experiences,’” reports Professor Newman, who is leading the Oxford University team. Familiar routes are recognized by robotic vehicles through 3D laser mapping. Small cameras, laser scanners, and sensors map out a detailed visual rendering of the car’s surroundings. The recognition software can take over already-traveled routes.

The U.K.’s Department for Transport writes that public safety can be ensured by updating the law to account for these new automotive technologies. As a safety precaution, a human driver will be in the vehicle during these trials to take over the controls in case of an emergency. “At any time, a tap on the brake pedal will return control to the human driver,” Newman tells the BBC. Google Lexus RX450 Autonomous Self Driving Car

Image credit: Google

To address the question of liability in case of accidents, Nevada and California have already added laws that mandate a licensed driver behind the wheel of an autonomous car.

The Texas legislature has gone a step further: HB 2932 is a bill that would hold a licensed driver for an autonomous vehicular accident responsible regardless of whether or not the driver is in it.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione filed this bill two weeks after Google revealed its self-driving car at the Texas Transportation Forum in February 2013. The U.S. has been taking the lead on testing self-driving cars – it is currently testing cars in Nevada, Florida and California.

Automakers like BMW and Audi have been investing in autonomous car safety research. Google announced this year that its self-driving cars have driven 300,000 miles on public roads without an accident.

Professor Newman told BBC news that Google execs were “trailblazers” towards the progress of self-driving vehicles, but added “they’re not the only game in town.” As Google continues to trailblaze trials in the private sector, the company’s co-founder Sergey Brin said that autonomous cars will be available for everyone within five years.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Raquel Cool is a Silicon Valley-based writer who covers various technology topics, ranging from information technology to health and life science. Raquel’s work has been published by the National Post, The Bold Italic, Hyphen Magazine and