Will Driverless Cars Grow up in 2018?

From the driverless vehicle hype seemingly hitting a peak in 2017, this year began with the news that Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and ride-hailing giant Uber had settled their legal wrangle, with the former taking a sizable chunk of the latter.
On many fronts, this is great news – intellectual properties have been successfully protected, and two of the largest investors in trying to find solutions to the autonomous vehicle problem are now aligned.
Waymo’s rapidly developing test and development vehicle fleet is spreading across the US, and despite Uber’s own bruising encounter with the regulators in the UK, the company’s R&D division ‘Uber ATG’ has continued to invest and make strides towards creating robot drivers. The much publicised fatality involving one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles in March 2018 has sent a much needed shockwave across the industry, and will – despite the tragedy itself – undoubtedly serve to improve safety practices, virtual and closed-course testing.
At CES in January, the world’s press started to understand the scale and complexity of autonomous driving, being able to compare not just two, but more than a dozen companies demonstrating their technologies in one place – and get a taste of the differences between those that are starting on the journey, and those that are nearing the end, with viable products entering the marketplace in the not-too-distant future.
In the UK, the Government’s programme of funding groups of companies to embark upon research projects will ‘start to end’, with the last of half a dozen funding rounds opening for bids this year and dozens of the previously funded projects reaching a zenith in 2018, with public trials, demonstrations and public exhibits.
With more than 50 projects already match-funded by the taxpayer and various consortium members made up of academia, industry players, public sector and innovative new organisations and startups venturing in to this field, it’s reasonable to say that this joint investment by the public and private sectors has enabled the UK – if not to take up the global lead – at the very least, reduce the gulf behind countries such as Germany, Japan and the US.
There are various international ‘leader boards’ which rate country’s readiness for autonomous vehicles, all of which now agree the UK is Top 10 material… imagine where we were before £100s of millions of investment!
It’s important to note that government investment won’t ‘fall of a cliff’, because there will continue to be opportunities for funding support through tax incentives for R&D (through Innovate UK), promotional support to international trade shows (through the Tradeshow Access Programme), networking events for numerous specialisms run by the Knowledge Transfer Network and the various industry Catapults).
For consumers, however, none of that matters – other than perhaps a smattering of national pride. For you and I, as buyers of cars, what do driverless cars actually mean? Will we go out and buy one?
The story of driverless cars, first and foremost, is about safety.
Don’t get hung up on a computer taking away your pleasure in driving… merely replacing the driving that is not enjoyable, and perhaps help you avoid accidents when driving is difficult, in bad weather, when you’re tired, near a school. No driver, anywhere, could begrudge that, or want to put others in harm’s way.
Improved road safety alone can easily repay these investments, just for the UK… even discarding the commercial opportunities in developing and exporting national expertise. Let’s take a number of annual road fatalities in the UK at 1700 people. DfT figures tell us that the cost to the taxpayer, for each fatal accident, is about £1.8m, so multiplied that up, and that’s £3b every year, lost.
The real figures (both of fatalities, and of cost to the taxpayer of each one) are higher… but indicatively, you can see the return on investment into CAV technologies is clear. Nobody is talking about the 4000 fatalities caused by human drivers on the same day globally, or the multi-billion £GBP negative impact of that.
Aside from that, the people that write, enforce and are governed by various laws covering vehicles (actually more than 100 statutes going back hundreds of years) also need to understand the new technologies, and insurance companies need to understand where liability might end up in the future. Other businesses, such as those that employ drivers on long or short distance deliveries, need to understand how their business or employment models might change, and the education system needs to adapt too.  It’s those ideas which will form the foundation of a new series of web interviews we’re producing on AutoSens TV.
We have been playing around with autonomous vehicles, and helping to teach people about them, for a couple of years now, but 2018 will provide the largest platform to date to talk about autonomous vehicles to the Great British public, as the London Motor Show will have a new feature, a dedicated Autonomous Vehicle Zone.
For many of the 60,000 expected visitors, it will be their first encounter with autonomous vehicles, as they have mostly been confined to test tracks, workshops and secret test facilities.
But at a motor show at ExCel, in London? CES is the Consumer Electronics Show (with cars), the Detroit Motor Show now has a technology showcase… the worlds of technology and automotive have combined.
When you consider that the Goodwood Festival of Speed’s most popular stand was Tesla, the time is right for the UK’s biggest car events to embrace autonomy and ‘close the loop’, showing that the UK still has ambition to progress on the international stage.
Cars are connected and more automated than they’ve been before, and I’m excited to see how the public reacts to the next generation of technologies that will be seen on our roads.
If you can’t wait until May then there are lots of free newsletters you can sign up to, for example by Robohub, MCAV or Innovative Mobility Research – and if you really want to get your hands dirty, there’s always Formula Pi – scale model driverless cars that you can code and race your friends and even compete against other people remotely – or Self Driving Track Days, where engineers gather to share their technical insights to help accelerate the spread of knowledge to new companies across the supply chain.
In 2018, there’s really no excuse not to get out and learn about this new wave of exciting new technology, because it’s well on its way.