New “self driving” cars are going to be tested on Britain’s public roads this year, according to the United Kingdom government department that deals with transportation. The trials will be taking place later in the year and this new “public” road testing is a significant breakthrough for the self driving vehicles as they’ve only been tested on private land until now.
These new cars of the future are guided by a system of sensors and cameras and they are seen as being a safer mode of travel than their driver controlled counterparts. The British government has said that a “backup” driver will be in the self-driving or “driverless” vehicle in case of any emergencies.
The UK Department for Transport have released the details of the $42 billion plan to reduce the congestion of British roads. According to a report released by the Department of Transport the new self driving cars can drive on their own by, “using knowledge of the environment in which they are driving,” and that, “They maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front at a set speed and without deviating from their lane – all without the driver’s input.”
Initially the public roads that the vehicles will be tested will be seldom used rural and suburban roads. The vehicle will be tested in what the department call a, “semi-autonomous” mode which will allow an “emergency” driver to take over if needed.
The tests will be conducted by the same team from Oxford University that developed and tested the driverless cars on private land around the Oxford Science Park.
The autonomous vehicles will use lasers and small cameras to memorise regular journeys. Journeys that would take the car owner to work or school, or the local shop. Sounds like the perfect setup for futuristic self driving cars to be tested on quiet British public roads this year, although the team may find it a bit difficult to find seldom travelled or quiet roads in England.
The head of the Oxford research team, Prof Paul Newman, told the BBC that he was excited by the public road trials in England. He said, “It’s a great area to be working in because it’s IT and computers and that’s what changes things. The British government sees that engineering is important.”
Self driven cars have been tested in other parts of the globe with the United States ahead of everyone else. So far ahead that three states, Nevada, Florida and California have all passed legislation based around the new self driving vehicles.
Google has already aimed its efforts at the private sector with a fleet of converted Toyota Prius’ able to cover over 300,000 miles on public roads. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has said that the autonomous cars will, “dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone.”
Google have also said that the new self driving vehicles will be commercially available within the next ten years.
Existing schemes are focussing on adapting existing cars that are currently available on the market, for example Volvo is working on a scheme that will allow self driven cars to “link-up” together as a sort of travel convoy. But a lot of car manufacturers are already showing interest in developing the technology in purpose-built vehicles. They plan to mass produce as soon as the cost of the technology lowers to a degree that an average family can purchase such a vehicle.
Currently the adapted vehicle utilises programs that aid in staying in the right lane, advanced “intelligent” cruise control and advanced emergency braking that relies on “sensor fusion.”
But Paul Watters, who is the head of “roads policy” at the UKs breakdown service AA, tells both developers and customers not to get excited just yet. Watters said, “In the past our members have expressed concern about fully autonomous cars, preferring human interaction. The notion of reading the newspapers and drinking a cup of coffee is a bit far-fetched. It’s early days and driverless cars won’t be mainstream for a long time.”
“But we have a variety of in-car technologies already, including guided parking and adaptive cruise control, so fully driverless cars will be the culmination of a gradual evolution, not an overnight revolution,” he added.
So later in 2013 you’ll be able to see one of the self driving cars sharing a road near you, if you live in Britain and use quiet public roads. Be sure to wave at the “emergency driver” while he monitors the test vehicle, he might be bored.
By Michael Smith