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Fully Autonomous Vehicles

At the July 2016 meeting of the Thames Valley Group, iAM RoadSmart CEO Sarah Sillars asked her audience when we thought that fully autonomous (self driving) vehicles would be come the norm. Answers ranged from within the next ten years to in thirty years time or more.

Imagine, if you will, that you have to program an autonomous vehicle. I dont just mean arrange for it to pick you up at point A, take you to point B and then park up. I mean write the software. Ill spare you the coding - you just have to design it.

The data sources you have available to you include cameras, radar, lidar, ultrasonics, mobile data (5G) and GPS. You may be able to communicate with other vehicles - autonomous or otherwise - but you will have to deal with vehicles not so equipped. You will have enhanced mapping data but they cannot be regarded as 100% accurate and up-to-date. You cannot rely on GPS and mobile data being always available.

You may be able to employ artificial intelligence but learning by trial and error isn’t an option when error means crashing.

A fully autonomous vehicle (SAE level 5*) need have no trained driver on board, or indeed any occupants at all, and would not need conventional driving controls. You could have a touch screen on which you can display the current position and other metrics (e.g. speed). You can ask for or permit passenger input, for example to modify the route, turn round and go back or summon help. You might need to ask an occupant to open a gate.

Some of the situations you will need to deal with are:

  • collision avoidance, or if a collision is inevitable find the course likely to result in the least “collateral damage”. Or do you, as a matter of policy protect your passengers at all costs? Could you sell your vehicle if the protection of occupants wasn’t paramount?
  • receiving a message to pick up passengers at a particular address, and recognising that you had the right passengers on board. Would you need to verify your passengers using a smart card or mobile phone app?
  • navigation including the ability to find an empty parking place or refuelling/recharging point;
  • finding an alternative route without intervention and without flip-flopping between two dead ends;
  • validating navigation data against the real world;
  • speed limits including “20 when lights flash”, temporary and variable speed limits and other restrictions;
  • following the vehicle ahead (platooning), but dealing with traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, box junctions etc;
  • being followed too closely by a human driver who will not react as quickly as you can;
  • lane following, but cope with no road markings, closed or offset lanes (hard shoulder running), route segregation (drop lanes), slip roads, merging streams of traffic, double white lines, hatched areas, chevrons;
  • managed (“smart”) motorways, all lane running, reversible lanes (“tidal flow”), tolls. Tolls can be collected electronically and charged back to the user;
  • differentiate between a parked vehicle (or skip etc), a vehicle waiting in a queue of traffic or waiting to turn right, or a bus waiting at a stop;
  • bus lanes (times of operation) and roads closed to traffic at certain times and/or days;
  • negotiating humps, cushions, slaloms (with priority) and other so-called “traffic calming” measures;
  • stop lines, advance stop lines and give way lines, traffic lights, filters, gantry signs, box junctions, level crossings, fire and ambulance stations;
  • turning left or right across a cycle lane or segregated cycle way and may have to give way to cyclists, and giving way to pedestrians who are crossing when you turn.
  • knowing when you need to give a horn signal or headlamp signal, and recognising when the latter may be misinterpretted. Will you even need headlights, other than to make you visible?
  • correctly interpretting signals given by other road users or people controlling traffic;
  • letting another vehicle enter a queue of traffic from a side road, or asking to be let in. Recognising when you are being let in;
  • emergency vehicles on “blues and twos” which could be coming from any direction - find a safe, place to pull over (if necessary) without blocking the emergency vehicle or committing a moving traffic offence;
  • negotiating with an oncoming vehicle or driver when you or both are turning right (left on the continent) at crossroads;
  • Dealing with priority and non-priority roads on the continent (France in particular). Would you be able to take your car abroad at all?
  • temporary traffic lights, stop-go boards, school crossing patrols, police or others controlling traffic, but not miscreants trying to wreak havoc or rob your passengers;
  • closed roads, barriers, signed diversions, police cars parked across the road, road blocked by accident, fire, fallen tree, etc.;
  • flooded roads - can you get through? Do you need to follow the crown of the road?
  • mud or snow covering camera lenses and/or road markings;
  • horses, other accompanied animals, farm animals being herded and stray or wandering animals (deer, New Forest ponies etc.);
  • encountering slow moving vehicles and outsize loads with or without escorts - overtaking strategies;
  • narrow lanes with passing places, narrow streets with parked cars and narrow bridges with or without priority - you may need to negotiate with oncoming and following vehicles or drivers;
  • getting an occupant, if there is one, to open a gate or to determine if there is room to park on a driveway. You might need to generate a suitable ultrasonic/infrared signal to open a gate or garage door. You would need to store the necessary security codes for whatever portals you had authority to enter. You might need to phone or text a prearranged number to announce your arrival.
  • towing: Would you be able to tow a trailer or caravan? Could you reverse it or turn it around if neccessary?
  • breakdown: get to a place of safety if possible, and send an SOS. You can assume that your location is being tracked;
  • housekeeping - updating maps and other data, energy management, condition monitoring, return to base when maintenance is needed or scheduled.

Some of these functions are currently available, but rely on a human driver ready to take over. Not having a trained driver on board, or anyone following the route, adds a whole new level of complexity. Manufacturers and their legal departments will be risk averse so you will have to err on the side of slowing down, stopping and waiting. If autonomous vehicles are easily recognisable then human actors could deliberately cause havoc by for example stepping out in front the vehicle knowing that it will stop. You will of course be able to record all camera input and save it in the event of an emergency stop or collision.

Although it’s not your immediate concern as a designer, the law makers and insurers will have to sort out the question of legal liability in the event of an accident or infringement of the traffic regulations. Will responsibility rest with the manufacturer, owner, maintainer or user?

In my view semi-autonomous vehicles which need to have a qualified driver on board are a dead end. The driver must be concentrating all the time but will not have anything to do most of the time. The problem is that you not only have to be aware of the situation but you need to recognise when the vehicle is heading for disaster. This takes valuable seconds which you may not have. The alternative strategy whereby the driver is in control but the technology provides assistance and protection is safer.

Various ownership strategies are possible but it is unlikely that AVs will be owned by private individuals. The big advantage of having a pool of vehicles is that they can be called up when needed and can be utilised during the day except when recharging. The management system could allocate a vehicle with sufficient charge for the journey requested. This would work well within towns and cities but less so for longer journeys or out in the country.

Richard Porter

* The Society of Automobile Engineers (SAE) has devised a code which classifies vehicles in a range of 0 (no automated assistance or protection) to 5 (fully autonomous and not requiring a trained driver on board).

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Last updated 3rd August, 2017