October 20, 2016      

A survey timed to coincide with the launch of the inaugural U.K. Robotics Week this past summer found that more than a quarter of British adults believe that the biggest benefit of driverless cars will be fewer road accidents. It also found that 56.4 percent of them expect to be in a driverless car in the next 25 years.

However, there is “a number of other likely benefits,” said Phil Harrold, senior assurance partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. They include reduced fuel consumption resulting from less driver intervention and the ability to operate in robotic convoys on motorways.

“This should lead to improved air quality, another health benefit,” he said. “It should also potentially lead to improved mobility for the elderly and disabled, which will be quality-of-life-enhancing.”

It’s important to put the results of the survey of 1,282 U.K. residents in context, noted Carsten Maple, professor of cyber systems engineering at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) Cyber Security Centre. Because the survey participants were a cross-section of the public, their understanding of the biggest benefit of a driverless car “might actually reflect their biggest need or desire,” he said.

Driverless cars should eventually meet the public's safety expectations, says Carsten Maple.

Driverless car makers will have to prove that they’ll be safe around human-controlled vehicles, notes Prof. Carsten Maple.

“The biggest challenge for driverless cars will be the interaction with humans,” Maple told Robotics Business Review. “Autonomous vehicles sharing the road with human-controlled vehicles presents a challenge, and until this is adequately overcome, there will still be issues with road accidents.”

Maple said he believes that the technology will improve to meet those safety expectations. “However, I do believe there will, in time, be a dramatic decrease in general road accidents,” he said.

Pathways to autonomy

Looking ahead, Maple envisages a “number of pathways” leading the industry towards a future where “practically all vehicles are autonomous.”

He cited companies such as Google, which are “aiming to create fully autonomous cars” but are looking to increase the range of possible applications in recognition of the fact that they don’t currently work in all environments.

Conversely, Maple said, manufacturers like Tesla Motors Inc. are seeking to develop a driverless car that can be used “in all environments, with an increased number of autonomous functions.”

Tesla this week announced that it is including the hardware for the Autopilot self-driving feature in all of its vehicles.

“Concurrently, we have some vehicles, such as those being developed by RDM — for example, shuttles in airports and cities — that are fully autonomous but work in specific environments,” Maple said. “I think that as we develop cars with more autonomous features and greater connectivity safety will improve.”

“The key innovation that will enable this will be around communication and shared intelligence, including a greater situational awareness,” he added. “However, it is important to think about more than just safety. We need cars to be robust, reliable and secure. The challenges will also be significant.”

See our driverless car report.

See also our research report, “Self-Driving Vehicles — Autonomy Just Up the Road.”

More on Driverless Cars:

Driverless car stakeholder engagement

Maple stressed that “a number of areas need addressing” before the public becomes fully engaged in the notion of a driverless car, not least the need to ensure that vehicles “correctly serve the users.”

He argued that researchers must “understand how the innovations they are considering might benefit industry and society.”

“To do this, there needs to be appropriate consultation and engagement,” Maple said. “For example, PETRAS, the U.K. Research Hub for Cyber Security of the Internet of Things, has a constellation of projects in transport and mobility. It has a strong theme of engagement and runs regular key stakeholder events.”

“One of the key areas that will need to be considered is how we ensure that the end-users have trust and confidence in the systems we hope to realise,” he said.

Ultimately, although PwC’s Harrold believes that sharing the results of the numerous tests under way would be a good way to engage the public, he said he suspects the “commercial draw” will eventually establish credibility in the eye of consumers.

“The driverless taxi may only be a short while away in every sense,” Harrold said.