Au­ton­omy in the UK: it’s here

The gent above is purely a min­der – he is be­ing driven around Mil­ton Keynes by a com­puter. And sit­ting be­hind him is a ner­vous Phil McNa­mara


THE RANGE Rover Sport brakes sud­denly and ag­gres­sively a good four car-lengths from the round­about en­trance, then creeps for­ward. With the way clear, the SUV takes the plunge and pulls out, jerk­ily steer­ing through the bend and then tak­ing the first exit onto an­other dual car­riage­way. In­stantly it lurches side­ways into the right-hand lane; I find my­self twist­ing to check the blindspot. It’s thank­fully empty, so – un­scathed – we con­tinue to our des­ti­na­tion, Mil­ton Keynes Cen­tral. I’ve had smoother rides to the sta­tion, but this trip is uniquely dif­fer­ent: there’s no hu­man driver. This is a demon­stra­tion, on open pub­lic roads, of the fruits of a three-year project to de­velop au­tonomous and con­nected car tech­nol­ogy in the UK.

Jaguar Land Rover safety driver Jim O’Donoghue is in the driver’s seat but he’s barely ‘at’ the wheel: he only in­ter­venes once dur­ing the four-mile jour­ney, not on na­tional speed limit stretches but when the ro­bot Range Rover gets foxed by a car park junc­tion.

This pro­to­type has, to use the sci­en­tific jargon, Level 4 au­tonomous ca­pa­bil­ity, mean­ing it can fully drive it­self in a ‘ge­ofenced’ area JLR re­searchers have mapped in de­tail. Level 5 – un­con­di­tion­ally au­tonomous ve­hi­cles with­out steer­ing wheels – is the the­o­ret­i­cal max­i­mum. Audi is cur­rently trapped in Ground­hog Day, try­ing to get the Level 3 au­tonomous sys­tem it re­vealed last4

‘The self­driv­ing Range Rover be­haves like a learner with lim­ited me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy’

sum­mer – which can only self-drive at up to 37mph in mo­tor­way con­ges­tion – ap­proved for com­mer­cial use on the A8. That could take an­other 12-18 months, says Audi. This free-Range Sport has a far wider oper­at­ing win­dow, thanks to its be­spoke ‘think­ing’ soft­ware and ‘see­ing’ hard­ware cost­ing around £250,000. It’s a pi­o­neer. And, on­board for 15 min­utes, so am I. The demon­stra­tion starts with a clunk­ing noise: from the pas­sen­ger seat, au­tonomous soft­ware op­er­a­tor Ni­harika Bhar­gava has armed the sys­tem, which au­di­bly takes con­trol of the elec­tric power-as­sisted steer­ing. Elec­tronic con­trol units for brakes, ac­cel­er­a­tor and other sys­tems have also gone self-suf­fi­cient. ‘The com­puter cor­re­sponds with all the sen­sors, [cre­at­ing a] per­cep­tion from fus­ing their in­for­ma­tion on whether some­thing’s in front, the cur­va­ture of the road, map po­si­tion, traf­fic lights and so on. It sends that to a gate­way which trans­lates this au­tonomous lan­guage into car lan­guage, which sends com­mands to the ECUs,’ ex­plains Bhar­gava.

How good is an au­tonomous driver?

Not very On the move, the self-driv­ing Range Rover Sport be­haves like a hes­i­tant learner with lim­ited me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy: brak­ing and throt­tle in­puts are con­sis­tent only in their ham-foot­ed­ness.

From the age it takes to pull away at traf­fic lights, I’m not con­vinced it would pass the 20-me­tre eye­sight as­sess­ment that pre­cedes a driv­ing test. And while it’s mag­i­cal watch­ing the steer­ing wheel twirl from side to side as if pro­pelled by a pol­ter­geist, it’s ap­pro­pri­ately scary too, as the car veers en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to­wards one bend’s kerb be­fore yank­ing on more lock to avoid con­tact. Silky smooth it is not.

But then I’m judg­ing it against a com­pe­tent hu­man driver. This is a scratch pro­to­type; it doesn’t tap into ex­ist­ing cruise con­trol and brake as­sist sys­tems ben­e­fit­ting from years of re­fine­ment. ‘For Level 4, to get the ar­chi­tec­ture to be ro­bust and for the car to con­trol it­self, we’ve had to go back to ba­sics and teach it to drive,’ says O’Donoghue. ‘So it errs on the side of cau­tion and is a bit lumpy in places.’

In­dis­putably. But it’s still a mind-bog­gling achieve­ment, even al­low­ing for the demo’s struc­tured na­ture: JLR has given this Range Rover Sport the abil­ity to see its sur­round­ings, com­pute ap­pro­pri­ate moves and then con­trol the ve­hi­cle sys­tems to en­act them and self-pi­lot the SUV to its des­ti­na­tion. All while dic­ing with ran­dom hu­man be­hav­iour on foot or in cars. Small round­abouts – where logic has to com­pete against hard-charg­ing, non-in­di­cat­ing hu­mans – have proven tough to nav­i­gate, and JLR has learned that sun­light can ob­scure green traf­fic lights for the cam­era, lead­ing to hes­i­tancy. It’s all vi­tal field re­search into sen­sor ca­pa­bil­ity and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, made pos­si­ble by the fo­cus pro­vided by the UK Au­to­drive study.

‘Any ac­tu­a­tion on a car is a big chal­lenge, and that’s be­fore the safety as­pect’ Mark Cund, Jaguar Land Rover

What has UK Au­to­drive done for us?

Tim Ar­mitage has the sat­is­fied air of Han­ni­bal at the end of an A-Team episode: a plan made four years ago has come to­gether. Ar­mitage works for Arup, the global plan­ning con­sul­tants, which mo­bilised 15 part­ners from the car in­dus­try, tech sec­tor, academia, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and the le­gal world, to de­velop and test au­tonomous and con­nected ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy, and ex­am­ine its im­pact on civic in­fra­struc­ture and so­ci­ety. The govern­ment bought into the UK Au­to­drive con­sor­tium’s vi­sion with £20 mil­lion of fund­ing, and looped it­self into the feed­back process. Min­is­ters dream of mak­ing the UK a hub for con­nected and au­tonomous ve­hi­cle de­vel­op­ment.

The au­tonomous Range Sport is just one tech­nol­ogy test­bed. The part­ners agree that one of the big­gest break­throughs is con­nect­ing dif­fer­ent cars from three dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­tur­ers – Ford, Tata and Jaguar – as well as link­ing them to high­ways in­fra­struc­ture, to en­able the shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion to boost safety and ef­fi­ciency.

The most fu­tur­is­tic-look­ing el­e­ment is the egg-shaped, self-driv­ing pods, de­signed to ferry peo­ple or cargo short dis­tances. These real-world Johnny Cabs from sci-fi movie

To­tal Re­call are clos­est to com­mer­cial in­tro­duc­tion. Ar­mitage re­flects on the project’s big­gest out­comes. ‘I think UK Au­to­drive has proven that the tech­nol­ogy will work. It still needs to be re­fined and pro­duc­tionised, and it needs to be much, much more af­ford­able, but the tech­nol­ogy will work. The next big task is to let peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence that tech­nol­ogy, and work out how best to use it.’

Two cities – Coventry and Mil­ton Keynes – joined the con­sor­tium as the play­ground for on-road test­ing. Coventry plays the role of tra­di­tional Bri­tish city: tight, com­plex and or­gan­i­cally spawned, with a ring road that de­mands rapid de­ci­sion-mak­ing due to its flurry of junc­tions. Mil­ton Keynes, with its metro­nomic grid struc­ture, pro­vides fast roads and myr­iad round­abouts for test­ing. The wide

‘UK Au­to­drive has proved that the tech­nol­ogy will work, but it needs to be re ined’ Tim Ar­mitage, project leader

walk­ways of Mil­ton Keynes proved ideal for run­ning the driver­less pods; Coventry’s coun­cil equipped six traf­fic lights with transpon­ders, to al­low them to com­mu­ni­cate their change se­quence to on­com­ing con­nected cars.

The tri­als have high­lighted some in­fra­struc­ture changes needed to un­leash the po­ten­tial of the au­tonomous and con­nected age. Air­ports, rail­way sta­tions and ho­tels could ditch vast car parks for kerb man­age­ment – ar­eas where au­tonomous ve­hi­cles (AVs) can drop off and pick up. And con­nected traf­fic lights, dy­namic road signs and real-time park­ing up­dates would be great. But who pays?

‘It’s a chicken and egg sit­u­a­tion,’ says Ford’s au­to­mated driv­ing su­per­vi­sor Chris­tian Ress. ‘Car mak­ers will ask coun­cils when they’ll put in com­mu­ni­ca­tors, and coun­cils will ask car mak­ers when they’ll equip the cars. UK Au­to­drive is good be­cause we can work on a com­mon ap­proach to bring this to mar­ket.’

And how might AVs af­fect traf­fic flow? More than 2000 spe­cially in­stalled sen­sors have logged the traf­fic in Mil­ton Keynes to cre­ate a com­puter model, with AVs grad­u­ally in­tro­duced to sim­u­late their im­pact. Ini­tially they will slow things down – be­cause of their ad­her­ence to speed lim­its and aver­sion to tail­gat­ing – but when they reach a crit­i­cal mass, con­ges­tion should de­crease.

How far off is that? Although the con­sor­tium has made progress with govern­ment, eas­ing red tape around on-road test­ing and rais­ing aware­ness of the cy­ber se­cu­rity threat, none of the par­tic­i­pants sounds con­fi­dent about get­ting the tech type-ap­proved. After all, the reg­u­la­tors are in the in­vid­i­ous po­si­tion of hav­ing to green-light an all-new tech­nol­ogy, and they need to con­ceive a new test­ing method to triple-check it’s safe. Audi’s ex­pe­ri­ence shows it takes years.

David Hud­son, Tata’s group chief en­gi­neer, says the In­dian car maker joined in to kick­start its au­tonomous jour­ney, and gen­er­ate real data to build on in the lab: ‘Sim­u­la­tion is a crit­i­cal part of fu­ture adop­tion. If you don’t get good at sim­u­lat­ing use cases, it will be im­pos­si­ble to val­i­date in fu­ture. If you can’t pre-prove, you might have to drive some­thing like eight bil­lion test miles to cover all the use cases!’

And my test ride shows there’s a long way to go be­fore the au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy is suf­fi­ciently re­fined and fail­safe.

‘We’ve shown that Level 4 ve­hi­cles can op­er­ate au­tonomously in ge­o­graph­i­cally spec­i­fied ar­eas. Com­mer­cially these ve­hi­cles will be avail­able in the next five to six years,’ says Arup’s Tim Ar­mitage. And Level 5 au­ton­omy? ‘A ve­hi­cle that could go ab­so­lutely any­where – that’s decades away.’

Jump­ing junc­tions with a psy­chic Mon­deo

We’re in a car park, play­ing a game of chicken, blind. Our Ford Mon­deo hy­brid ap­proaches an in­ter­sec­tion ob­scured by parked cars. Although it can’t be seen, a Tata Hexa SUV is also ap­proach­ing from the side: we’re on a col­li­sion course. What can you do but have faith in the tech­nol­ogy? Driver Lovedeep Brar con­sults his in­stru­ment bin­na­cle (be­low, left), which graph­i­cally sig­nals an ap­proach­ing ve­hi­cle. But it also shows a green band on the dig­i­tal speedo, be­tween 27 and 50km/h – if Brar stays within that range, the Mon­deo should pass safely. We sail into the junc­tion and… noth­ing un­to­ward hap­pens; the Hexa has stopped.

It’s all thanks to ded­i­cated short-range com­mu­ni­ca­tions (DSRC). Wi-fi routers in each car emit ra­dio sig­nals ev­ery mil­lisec­ond, al­low­ing the cars to process in­for­ma­tion about con­nected ob­jects in the vicin­ity. With the Mon­deo hav­ing right of way, the bin­na­cle ad­vises us to pro­ceed, while the Tata driver is in­structed to stop to avoid a po­ten­tial col­li­sion.

Here, the car-to-car com­mu­ni­ca­tions are ad­vi­sory, but in the au­tonomous fu­ture a con­nected car could au­to­mat­i­cally brake if it’s in dan­ger. There’s an ef­fi­ciency ben­e­fit too: the re­searchers demon­strated ‘in­ter­sec­tion pri­or­ity man­age­ment’, where the Mon­deo, Hexa and a fol­low­ing Jaguar F-Pace all criss-crossed the junc­tion like the Red Ar­rows, their speed and se­quence de­ter­mined from the DSRC. Time and fuel would be saved by keep­ing con­nected cars flow­ing. Ford, Tata and Jaguar are chuffed that they’ve got the EU com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­to­col to work across their cars. The ben­e­fits are ob­vi­ous, and rolling these fea­tures out as driver aids is far less fan­ci­ful than au­ton­omy. But both have the same Achilles’ heel: adop­tion needs to be fast and far-reach­ing to have a pro­found im­pact. In the mean­time, it’s back to the re­search labs, prov­ing grounds and reg­u­la­tors, as the drive for con­nected and au­tonomous cars con­tin­ues.

‘We’ve tested con­nected tech; now it’s over to prod­uct de­vel­op­ment’ Chris­tian Ress, Ford

WHEEL SPEEDThis hum­ble sen­sor is as valu­able as any of the high­ertech parts. It mea­sures how fast the wheels are turn­ing to pro­vide ex­act speed and dis­tance data. By com­par­ing this with other data, the com­puter gets an idea of slip, and there­foreroad con­di­tions.

Just pop­ping down to the tip, dear. Got a load of elec­tri­cal junk tothrow out

After four years of work, Tim Ar­mitage and his teams have proved the tech­nol­ogy can op­er­ate in the real world. Now they need to bring the costs down

Ex­pect to see more of these hum­ming around air­ports, hos­pi­tals and city cen­tres – soon with­out any driv­ers

Green area of speedo shows how fast you need to go to avoid acol­li­sion

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