Hands Off the Wheel

Major trials of self-driving cars begin on London roads

A couple of weeks ago, the UK’s StreetWise consortium announced the launch of its commuter research trials. This is the country’s most ambitious demonstration of self-driving vehicles on mixed-use public roads in London, deploying advanced technology developed by FiveAI. FiveAI’s partners in this project include Direct Line and the Transport Research Laboratory.

FiveAI is a UK-based start-up that developed a technology stack to power autonomous vehicles using artificial intelligence and machine learning, enabling cars to use simpler maps to navigate their surroundings. Direct Line is one of the largest providers of car insurance in the UK, and the Transport Research Laboratory is the global centre for innovation in transport and mobility.

The trials aim to gather insights into self-driving vehicle services from research participants provided by Direct Line. The StreetWise project researches the technology, safety validation methods, insurance and service models needed to deliver a viable, shared self-driving service.

For now, the research project is running with a fairly restricted set of parameters. The trials are being held on a specific route between the London boroughs of Croydon and Bromley, until the end of November 2019. The route is 19 kilometres long, and cars pick up passengers and drop them off at predefined locations. The vehicles have trained safety drivers sitting behind the steering wheel as a precaution.

The US and China have been the hot spots of autonomous driving technology, with car-makers and cash-rich mobility start-ups working to perfect self-driving vehicles in urban environments. Companies like Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise Automation have completed thousands of miles of autonomous vehicle miles without human intervention.

The overall goal of the trials is to accelerate the viability of autonomous vehicles, which will bring several benefits, such as reducing the number of cars on roads, fighting pollution and expanding accessibility to a wide range of citizens.

The UK government has said it wants fully autonomous vehicles on roads by 2021, but it’s unclear if the technology will be mature enough by then to be used daily. It was hoped by the more optimistic parties that 2019 would be the inflection point for autonomous driving, but the technology, although impressive, is still half-baked. Nonetheless, there’s encouraging activity in this space, with Volvo expecting to launch its first autonomous vehicles within the next two years, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims his company could start selling autonomous cars as early as in 2021.

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, the devil is in the detail. The definition of fully autonomous varies wildly and we continue to believe that the industry remains years away from reaching fully autonomous Level 5 vehicles and the necessary supporting infrastructure. The industry is making progress, however. We just need to ensure that blind optimism doesn’t become a roadblock to success.