The self-driving car is coming – and probably a great deal sooner than most of us realise. So, how will business drivers make the most of it?

Along with the move from internal combustion engines to alternative power sources, the other seismic change to business driving over the next couple of decades will be the transition towards automated cars.

SIX STEPS TO FULL AUTOMATION

Human driver monitors the driving environment

Level 0: No automation

You’re on your own. Think of a classic car, without modern driver aids such as anti-lock brakes or traction control.

LEVEL 1: Driver assistance

The definition from engineering expert SAE is “the driving mode-specific execution by a driver assistance system of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment”. The onus is still on the driver to, well, drive the car. Assistance systems like cruise control or lane keep assist will lend a hand, but won’t drive the car for you.

LEVEL 2: Partial automation

The car’s systems can ‘drive’ in a limited sense, taking care of steering, accelerating and braking under some circumstances (for example, on a relatively straight road with clear lane markings). However, the driver is still very much in charge – or should be. The SAE definition states: “the human driver perform[s] all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task.”

Automated system monitors the driving environment

LEVEL 3: Conditional automation

At this point the technology really starts to progress. The car is the star, so to speak, monitoring the road around it and taking care of all aspects of driving. However, the driver may still have to intervene and take over. In a sense, roles are reversed: instead of having driver assistance systems to help the driver if they make a mistake, the driver is there to take over from the system if it can no longer control the car safely. The driver has to expect to do this in certain situations, so won’t be able to switch off completely.

LEVEL 4: High automation

The next step sees the driver take more of a back seat, perhaps literally. The system may still ask the driver to intervene, but the crucial difference is that a ‘level 4’ car will carry on even if the driver doesn’t step in, or “does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene”, as SAE puts it.

LEVEL 5: Full automation

You’re out of job, driver. You’re not even a co-pilot to the system, you tell it where you want to go then get to work on that all-important presentation, or whatever has replaced presentations in the workplace of the future. Or as SAE more prosaically puts it, ‘level 5’ means: “the full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver.”

Arguably the shift to driverless motoring is an even bigger shake-up than the switch to electric and fuel cell vehicles. Truly autonomous cars promise to revolutionise the way we travel on business, turning cars into mobile offices by day, and living rooms by night.

However, there’s a long way to go before this vision can be realised, and many hurdles along the way.

One danger is misunderstanding or overestimating the ability of existing technology. Systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot and Mercedes-Benz’s Drive Pilot still require the driver to maintain attention, even though the technology is able to steer the car for the driver.

Read the handbook, and you’ll find the driver should keep their hands on the wheel while Merc’s Drive Pilot is in use. In fact, if the driver doesn’t keep their hands on the wheel the car displays a warning on the dash and, if this warning is ignored, it will eventually slow
to a halt with the hazard lights on.

This is what the global standards body, SAE, defines as ‘level 2’ automation. The next step – and when things get really interesting – is ‘level 3’. The primary responsibility for monitoring the driving environment shifts from the driver to the car, making ‘level 3’ the tipping point beyond which the driver increasingly becomes a passenger. The new Audi A8 will bring this level of autonomy to UK roads early next year.

“Time in the car could become a break, meaning the driver arrives at the destination relaxed and ready”

The trouble comes when the ‘level 3’ car needs the driver to stop writing emails, checking Facebook or watching a film, and deal with a situation the car can’t. “For some parts of the journey you will be hands, feet and eyes off, probably on motorways and dual-carriageways,” says Matthew Avery, head of research at Thatcham.”You will probably be required to monitor that system, but how you monitor it and how often is still up for debate. Commentators are talking about a 10-second handover period, but the vehicle’s systems can only see around three seconds up the road. You are likely to see some crashes that we don’t have today because the systems aren’t mature enough.

There’s also the issue of an increasingly mixed fleet, and the way drivers will interact with driverless cars. A paper by researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transport Research Institute highlights the way drivers use eye contact to help gauge each other’s intentions. “Such feedback would be absent in interactions with self-driving vehicles. The degree of the importance of both driver expectations and feedback from other drivers, and the consequent effects on the safety of a traffic system containing both conventional and self-driving vehicles, remain to be ascertained,” the authors warn.

It’s easier to be optimistic about the benefits of autonomy when it reaches ‘level 4’, with cars that can reliably drive themselves. At this point cars will still have steering wheels (or some other means for the driver to take control), but the crucial difference from ‘level 3’ is that the system should be able to take care of itself even if the driver is unable to, potentially by parking itself and ending the journey. Beyond lies ‘level 5’ – full automation – when the driver tells the car where to go but takes no further role in getting there. Thatcham estimates we’ll start to see these ‘robot taxis’ from 2025, but clearly it will be many years more before these cars make up the majority of the vehicle parc.

 

Tesla - automation feature

It’s when ‘level 4’ and ‘level 5’ vehicles become commonly available that commutes and business trips can be as productive as time at a desk. Alternatively, time in the car could become a break, meaning the driver/passenger arrives at their destination refreshed and relaxed, rather than tired and stressed. Throw car-to-car communication into the mix and you have the potential for convoys of cars driving closely together in safety, improving fuel economy and cutting costs.

Despite the question marks and pitfalls around the intermediate steps to full autonomy, proponents of self-driving cars believe they will eventually make the roads safer.

Richard Cuerden, the TRL’s chief scientist, engineering and technology, says: “We are going to see safety improvements. A full fleet of autonomous cars would reduce pedestrian fatalities by 20%. And in terms of car-to-car and car-to-truck collisions, such vehicles are going to be even more effective. We won’t have seen anything like the reduction in harm before.”

GATEway to the future

There are a number of autonomous-vehicle trials under way in the UK, including the GATEway project in Greenwich, which hit the roads in the spring.

GATEway Driverless Vehicle - Greenwich LondonGATEway has progressed extremely well; earlier this year we carried more than 100 members of the public in our first fully driverless pod, before offering in excess of 100 other members of the public a chance to receive the first driverless grocery deliveries in the UK,” says Simon Tong, the TRL’s principal research scientist.

“We are continuously improving our understanding of how driverless systems need to operate in complex urban environments where they have to respond safely to the actions of pedestrians and cyclists. This knowledge is feeding into the development of our new driverless pod fleet that will soon be demonstrating a real first- and last-mile transport service on the Greenwich peninsula.”

 

David Motton