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6 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 12:08pm

Driverless cars shift up a gear

The technology behind the latest models is not new but, says academy director Professor Nick Reed of the Transport Research Laboratory, it’s accelerating

By Professor Nick Reed

The automotive industry is well used to adapting to automation in manufacturing. Many of us will remember the Fiat adverts from the late 1970s with the tagline “Handbuilt by robots”. The implementation of robotic car manufacture led to significant cost savings and improvements in the reliability and flexibility of vehicle mass production.

A new challenge to vehicle production is on the horizon and, again, it comes from automation. However, this time it is not to do with the manufacturing process, but with the vehicles themselves.

Research projects on vehicle automation are not new. The Transport Research Laboratory has had vehicles with limited self-driving capabilities for more than fifty years, resulting in significant contributions towards driver assistance systems. But since Google announced in 2010 that it had been trialling self-driving cars on the streets of California, progress in this field has rapidly gathered pace.

Improved safety

There are many reasons why technology is advancing so fast. One frequently cited motive is safety; indeed, TRL research has demonstrated that more than 90 per cent of road collisions involved human error as a contributory factor, and it is the primary cause in the vast majority. Automation may help to reduce the incidence of human error.

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Another aim is to free the time people spend driving for other purposes. If the vehicle can do some or all of the driving, it may be possible to be productive, to socialise or simply to relax while automation systems have responsibility for safe control of the vehicle. If the vehicle can do the driving, those who are challenged by existing travel models – such as older or disabled travellers – may be able to enjoy significantly greater independent mobility.

Fewer cars on the road

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Beyond these direct benefits, we can consider the wider implications for transport and society, and how manufacturing processes might need to respond as a result. At present, the average car spends more than 90 per cent of its life parked. Automation means that car-sharing schemes become much more viable, particularly in urban areas with significant travel demand. If a significant proportion of the population choose to use shared automated vehicles, mobility demand can be met by many fewer vehicles.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigated automated mobility in Singapore, finding that fewer than 30 per cent of the vehicles currently used would be required if fully automated car sharing could be implemented. If this is the case, it might mean that we need to manufacture many fewer vehicles to meet demand. However, the number of trips being taken would probably increase, partly because automated vehicles would allow a greater number of older and disabled travellers to become mobile, but also because empty vehicles would have to be moved from one customer to the next.

Modelling work by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute suggests automated vehicles might reduce vehicle ownership by 43 per cent, but that average vehicle mileage would double as a result. As a result, each vehicle would be used more intensively and might need replacing sooner. This faster rate of turnover may mean that vehicle production will not necessarily decrease.

Decline in car ownership

Car sharing may prompt other changes in vehicle manufacture. Car buyers will purchase one car rather than another for a range of reasons but many will choose a vehicle that is an adequate compromise to meet their needs, not just for mobility but also for efficiency, performance, as a status symbol, etc. If we move to a model where consumers are tending not to own a single vehicle but to purchase access to a range of vehicles through a mobility provider, drivers will have the freedom to select one that best suits their needs for a particular journey, rather than a compromise across all their requirements.

Since, for most of the time, most of the seats in most cars are unoccupied, this may boost production of a smaller, more efficient range of vehicles that suit the needs of individuals. Specialised vehicles may then be available for exceptional journeys, such as going on a family camping trip or helping a son or daughter move to university.

The growth of the US carmaker Tesla, rising sales of cars with hybrid powertrains and the ongoing arguments around vehicle emissions are all signposts towards significant changes in the way in which vehicles are powered. This is compounded by an increased focus on air quality in urban areas, exemplified by London’s challenges in meeting targets for reducing levels of nitrogen dioxide.

It is also the case that vehicle automation is simplified by the use of electric drivetrains, which have simpler power transmission systems and are more amenable to computer control. However, vehicle manufacture will need to adapt to the highly complex electronic systems used for perception, localisation and guidance. These systems must be installed to work at a sufficient reliability level to ensure they can deliver safe control of the vehicle.

A further potential development in the automotive industry is the possibility of using additive manufacture (3D printing) for creating not just components but complete bodies of cars, including structural elements to withstand a crash. The US-based company Local Motors has already demonstrated the use of 3D printing to create cars, with its Strati concept. The company has built on this technique to develop the LM3D model, for which it is aiming to gain European “type approval” for large-volume car production, and is also exploring its use to create vehicles for urban transport systems, with its concept Berlino smart minibus.

In a future where automated vehicles are common, manufacturers could have the flexibility to make changes within software to designs and components, and then upload those changes directly to the 3D printing production line.

Trust and acceptance

There are a number of hurdles to overcome in delivering automated vehicles to our roads. These include the technical difficulties in ensuring that the vehicle works reliably in the infinite range of traffic, weather and road situations it might encounter; the regulatory challenges in understanding how liability and enforcement might change when drivers are no longer essential for vehicle operation; and the societal changes that may be required for communities to trust and accept automated vehicles as being a valuable part of the mobility landscape.

It’s clear that there are many challenges that need to be addressed but, through robust and targeted research – like that being undertaking in our UK Smart Mobility Living Lab at Greenwich in south London – I believe we can conquer these within the next ten years. Mobility will change in such potentially significant ways and in association with so many other technological developments, such as telepresence and virtual reality, that it is hard to make concrete predictions about the future. However, one thing is certain: change is coming, and the need to be flexible in response to this will be vital for those involved in manufacturing the vehicles that will deliver future mobility.