We've been promised driverless cars for years. So why aren't they on the roads yet?

The technology underpinning autonomous vehicles exists, but everything else is yet to be done.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Despite a lot of hype and many promises, putting driverless cars on the roads, as it turns out, is a difficult undertaking. Self-driving hub organization Zenzic, which is a joint effort between government and industry, has taken an in-depth look into the challenges that need to be tackled in the UK to make sure that the next ten years see drivers safely removing their hands from the steering wheel, for good. 

The process, according to the organization's analysis, will require no less than 492 milestones to be achieved in the coming decade. On the other hand, driverless cars will enable smoother journeys, reducing pollution and saving time to boost overall productivity. Zenzic estimates that the technology has the potential to save up to 225 hours a year per driver.

To gather an understanding of the current state of things in the UK when it comes to connected and automated mobility (CAM), Zenzic gathered input from over 100 so-called "CAM Creators". They include companies and organizations that are involved in one way or the other in bringing driverless cars to the roads, ranging from universities to sensor-designing tech companies, through to legal institutions drawing the necessary regulations for the field.

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Zenzic's report, which comes in the form of a roadmap to 2030 for connected and automated mobility (CAM), shares some good news: about half of the 492 milestones identified are active "in some capacity", and should deliver results in the next few years. For example, agreements on the test and validation methods for automated driving systems (ADS) have already kicked off and are expected to be finalized next year.

The UK is particularly strong in the field of vehicle technology, shows the research: a high number of companies are actively innovating in the fields of software, automation, testing, safety and connectivity, but also sensors and cybersecurity.

"A lot of work has focused on developing the underlying technology of self-driving vehicles," Mark Cracknell, head of technology at Zenzic, tells ZDNet. "One of our biggest strengths is in software for autonomous driving systems, for example.  

"A lot of the technology we have is probably there or thereabouts in terms of the ability to start expanding beyond the very small-scale trials. And the early trials that need to happen are well underway, because a lot of that technology development is already happening."

Three years ago, the UK government committed as part of a new industrial strategy to having "fully self-driving cars, without a human safety operator" on the country's roads by 2021; and with only a few months left before the deadline, the smart mobility field is only starting to expand from early trials. In other words, it doesn't seem that the target will be achieved on time.

That is not to say that the technology promised by the government back in 2017 is far-removed from reality. In Scotland, for example, a government-backed initiative dubbed Project CAVForth is expected to enter a program of trials over the next year, and will see autonomous single-decker buses carrying passengers over a 30-mile route between Fife and Edinburgh.

CAVForth is expected to be carrying paying passengers by this time next year, and as such it will constitute the first commercial deployment of a level-4 vehicle in the UK. This means that, while a human safety operator will be on-board, they will not be expected to take control of the bus.

Initially set to launch in the second half of 2020, the project was, therefore, put forward by experts as evidence that the government would effectively meet its 2021 deadline.

Recently, a fleet of six level-4 autonomous vehicles were also deployed to the streets of Oxford as part of a program called Project Endeavour, with the objective of learning from a range of traffic scenarios and weather conditions.

It remains the case that 2021 is not looking like the year that fully self-driving cars enter the mainstream. "The idea of having self-driving vehicles on the road is bound to the context within which you frame that," says Cracknell. "One of the things that is being worked on, for example, is ensuring that you can get on the road safely. It's more important, in my opinion, to do it the right way than it is to hit a specific deadline for the sake of it."

In fact, Zenzic's report shows that only 10% of the activity that is necessary for self-driving vehicles to hit UK roads by 2030 is related to the technical development of self-driving vehicles. The remaining majority of work that needs to be done is concerned with building up the ecosystem of autonomous driving, such as ensuring safety, increasing testing, building up the right infrastructure and writing the necessary legislation.

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Cracknell is confident that the UK, from the perspective of regulation, is world-leading. Several legal frameworks and standards have effectively been pushed forward in the past years to define requirements for self-driving vehicles and infrastructure. 

For example, the UK government has defined a code of practice to facilitate the trialing of automated vehicles on UK roads, which is revised on an ongoing basis thanks to input from industry and academia. 

"The UK has always been influential on vehicle standards, and we are heavily involved in that," says Cracknell. "We are definitely at the forefront of informing this field, and ultimately a lot of the base level we are drawing will be common across the globe."

Despite this apparent strength, Cracknell insists that now is not the time for complacency. "It's a critical time and a call for arms for renewed and continued commitment to invest in this space, because without that we could foresee a future in ten years' time where all the technology is bought in, and the rules are set for us by the global market," he says.

It is hard not to compare the UK's efforts to the leaps taken by organizations across the Atlantic. Ex-Alphabet company Waymo, for example, announced at the start of the month that it is now offering a fully driverless service to some premium customers in Phoenix, and counting on making all rides fully driverless in the near term. 

To keep ahead of mounting competition on a global scale will be no easy challenge. The benefits of smarter mobility are not out of reach anymore, but to achieve them will require keeping the field active with research and innovation.

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