Industry expert discusses future of autonomous vehicles
Autonomous vehicles are no longer a novelty, with many vehicles already utilising lane keeping systems and adaptive cruise control. However, how can users stay safe, what constitutes a truly autonomous vehicle, and what does the future hold?
With 30 years of experience in the industry, Kevin Vincent, Director of Coventry University’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Automotive Research offered his arguments surrounding ADAS and driver autonomy.
SAE levels of automation
Vincent refers to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) levels of automation to classify levels of autonomy. Levels range from zero, where there are no driver assistance systems, to five where the system controls the vehicle under all conditions with capabilities to interact in a mixed fleet. Vincent does not see this level five autonomous driving happening any time soon.
The current level of automation in the UK is level two, where the system performs several driving tasks with the driver permanently monitoring, meaning the driver has liability. The industry has just seen the first certification of a level three vehicle, where the driver can engage in non-driver related tasks until the system hands them back control.
Vincent explained however: “There is a little bit of a grey area about how it hands back control and when you confirm that the driver is back in control and fully competent to be taking control.”
Uber self-driving SUV incident
In 2018, an Uber SUV hit and killed a pedestrian wheeling their bike across the road in Arizona. The level of autonomy here is defined by Vincent as level three.
Vincent said: “The key thing is the use of safe redundancy in the systems you have. You need to rely on a multitude of sensor systems to accurately recognise the scenario that the vehicle is in so it can perceive objects and hazards. If it can’t, it needs to recognise that and hand that control back to the operator.”
This incident happened because the system failed to perceive the hazard ahead, however the backup driver was charged over the fatal crash as it was found she was watching an episode of a television show at the time.
“The challenge the industry has is ensuring regulation is harmonised across multiple markets so that everyone is operating from the same understanding,” Vincent added.
The Law Commission
The Law Commission has written a helpful report explaining liability, explained Vincent. If a driverless vehicle is undertaking an automated driving task, the manufacturer is liable in this mode. When the system transitions, and the driver is recognised as taking control, for instance by grabbing the steering wheel or controls, the driver is liable.
It is also a recognised criminal offence to describe your vehicle as self-driving when it is not, which Vincent explained is an “interesting message that the industry is going to have to portray to its customers so users of the technology will understand this limitation.”
He added: “There is lots of messaging that we need to get right in this sector.”
Between 90 and 95% of road traffic accidents are a result of human error, therefore autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce human error, and in turn, traffic incidents.
There are still circumstance that mean autonomous vehicles could be rendered unsafe or unreliable, including the threat of cybersecurity. Vincent said the industry must continue to be aware of such attacks, and that over the air updates remain secure.
When operating at level three and above, Vincent claimed that to remain safe you must take the following precautions: “You need to be aware that the vehicle might make an emergency manoeuvre which might be enough to create force. You don’t want objects flying about if the vehicle does this, and things can happen outside your control. Also, be aware of your posture and remain in a position that makes it easy to regain control.”
Vincent clarified that if the user of an autonomous vehicle understands the technology and utilises it correctly, it will be very safe: “These systems will reduce human error, that alone will produce big benefits to socio economic costs, reduce loss of life and reduce reportable accidents.”
The future of autonomous vehicles
Vincent believes the near future looks promising for mass transit.
“I think there's big opportunities for mass transit and logistics to automate. We’ve got a project at Coventry University looking at remote teleoperation. This entails logistics vehicles operating in a port environment. Multiple vehicles operate without an operator, with one safety driver remotely monitoring vehicles, able to step in when required if there's an issue or to clear a log jam,” said Vincent.
Looking at the future beyond 10 years, Vincent explained we could see the ability for inner cities, and potentially beyond, to have shuttle pod systems. These will have the ability to interact with rail, mass transit and other forms of active transport, creating seamless journeys.
Vincent referred to Coventry’s Very Light Rail System, a tram that runs on a non-intrusive rail system, planned and backed for future operation: “I can see that interacting with shuttle pods. You will be able to get off at your station, jump on a pod which takes you wherever you want to go.”
Future innovation depends on how ambitious and tightly the use cases can be controlled, concluded Vincent: “The technology is largely there. Infrastructure need to be made sure it’s as safe as the vehicle so there is a huge need for communication between infrastructure providers, search providers and vehicle providers, requiring some foresight from authorities as well.”