Driverless cars are being tested on Greenwich Peninsula and, in what’s believed to be a world first, the public has been invited to go down for a ride.Thanks to Hollywood it is easy to let your imagination get carried away with thoughts of Minority Report-style pods that zip at breakneck speed along twisting tracks.But we are still a long way from that, according to expert Andrew Frost.“Some people would say we are 95% of the way there and the last 5% is very hard. I disagree,” said the head of development and trials for Westfield Sportscars, which built the vehicles.“Having the technology doesn’t necessarily mean market penetration or success.
It takes acceptance, changes in legislation and an awful lot of data and research.“We need to try and learn from the mistakes of the past and not only identify the known unknowns but the unknown unknowns.“Look at people’s thoughts on autonomous vehicles and you start getting into ethics. Will it make the decision to hit me rather than them if it has absolutely no choice?“How is the vehicle going to interact with the grid?“There are lots of technical questions as well as just making the vehicles move by themselves.”Not what you may expect him to have said given he is at the forefront of the £8million Government-backed GATEway (Greenwich Autonomous Test Environment) project.But his caution foreshadowed the death of an American women hit by an Uber self-driving car in Arizona on Sunday, which has stirred up debate about the future of driverless vehicles.The public trials in Greenwich were preceded by years of research and testing.The GATEway project is run by a consortium of 15 organisations, led by TRL (Transport Research Laboratory), which has more than 50 years’ experience in vehicle automation and has been backed by £5.5million from the Government through Innovate UK.
Partners include Greenwich Council, DigiCities for the smart cities approach, Royal Sun Alliance for the insurance, Telephonica O2 looking what’s needed for connecting autonomous vehicles, the University Of Greenwich and Royal College of Art for a research perspective looking at pedestrian interactions with the pod and TRL, looking at people’s acceptance of and experience with the vehicles as passengers to identify barriers to public acceptance.
The pods are based on designs used at Heathrow with four standard tyres and two-wheel steer and they are made from a selection of materials such as carbon fibre and glass-reinforced plastic.
The technology that guides them is created by Fusion Processing – blend of radar, lidar, ultrasonic sensors for close proximity, stereo cameras, GPS and an internal monitoring unit for wheel speed and steering sensors.
This also allows the pods to operate in adverse weather conditions, or even in the dark – a global first for this technology.
“They to tell a vehicle is, where it needs to go and what hazards there might be,” said Andrew who has spent the last five months on site in Greenwich, testing out the vehicles.
The public trials are the culmination of his work and the final phase of the GATEway project.
“We have tried it in different weather conditions so we can adjust the algorithms and feed the beast that drives the machine.
“After we had done all the static tests I become the crash test dummy for real world tests like stopping distances and then autonomous stopping at different speeds.
“I will step in front of it as it is going at different speeds to make sure it doesn’t hit me and then I’ll do the same with a bike from the front and side to make sure we are not putting anyone at risk.
“It hasn’t hit me yet.”
TAKING A RIDE
The vehicles are being tested along a pedestrianised section of the Thames Path that runs round The O2 and cannot leave the 3.4km route given to them but make their own decision about how to navigate it.
They are limited by a code of practise to 9mph and, although sedate, our ride is sporadic with lots of stopping and starting as the sensors detect obstacles.
We come within an inch of the fence a few times and our safety steward Bob Smith, a researcher with TRL, has to get out a few times to connect the joystick and steer us back into position.
At the turning around point we even have a tiny scrape as the car nudges a metal post.
On the return it seems to come into its stride, picking up speed and negotiating smoothly around a series of haphazard pedestrians, joggers and a cyclist.
“You don’t just map a line and then press a button and it goes out and does that,” said Andrew.
“These beasts are free ranging animals and as you travel in them they think – at times, stopping, changing, altering their path.
“We have given them a much more active brain and ability to navigate.
“We have come a long way in 12 months.”
The project has also included a series of trials and investigations into ideas such as valet parking, accessibility for disabled drivers and shopping deliveries.
They also created a simulator trial of the Greenwich environment in which a human driver was faced with an increasing number of autonomous vehicles to see how they would react.
“We wanted to see if there would be any bullying of the autonomous vehicles and if they would take any more risk at pulling out on them,” said Andrew.
“The result was interesting as people did take more chances by pulling out earlier as they knew the autonomous vehicles would stop.”
So what does the future hold according to Andrew?
“For us, the next iteration of trials after this is another Government-funded project called Capri in Bristol and we will be taking them up to road speed of 30mph.”
Westfield also has a deal to supply 200 pods for an island in South Korea as well as other opportunities in the Middle East and the UK.
But Andrew said: “I think we are still quite far from the futuristic world people imagine.
“There are natural areas where you will see growth.
“Motorways are a controlled environment so it is the next natural development but there is a lot of debate about whether we should have that handover between systems.
“If you are working in the vehicle and distracted sending emails and the vehicle says overtake you suddenly have to engage.
“There is still a lot to unpick around the insurance industry, you are no longer making the decisions but relaying on the system. So what do you insure, the vehicle software, operator, owner?
“There is a whole rugged world out there of everything else we need to get right.
“But we are moving forward.
“The review of the legislation has been launched and we have the code of practice, which is helping to shape how we do this projects and real world trials.
“That will shape the next five to ten years of what we want to achieve.”
The public trials are taking place until the end of March and are on a first-come first served basis.
Go to gateway-project.org.uk for more information.