While the idea of self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles, may still feel as though it’s borderline science fiction, real life is catching up fast. And it’s no accident that the UK is at the cutting edge of this rapidly developing industry. The government’s Centre for Connected Autonomous Vehicles was set up in 2015. Stated government policy is to have self-driving cars on the roads by 2021 and three trials are getting a combined investment of £25 million to turn that policy into reality.

That includes self-driving buses in Edinburgh and self-driving taxis in London. The stakes are high. In the UK alone, the market for autonomous and connected vehicles is expected to be worth around £52 billion by 2035.[1]

What are autonomous vehicles?

A fully autonomous car is one that can drive itself, from start to a pre-set end point, without a driver. There are five levels of autonomous vehicle and many people are already driving cars that have some of the first or second level features. For example, driver assist, lane control, or remote-control parking are all areas where technology is filling in to replace or compensate for driver behaviour. As car manufacturers roll out more of these sorts of features, the evolution towards the driverless car continues. The end game is a car that can cope with all the road conditions, unexpected circumstances and decisions that a driver deals with. That will be level 5.

That’s also the point where the technology crosses over into ethics and controversy arises. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning will drive vehicle decision making, but people still create the data models that underpin machine learning. If it comes down to a choice in an impending accident, should the car save an old man in a wheelchair, or a mother and child? Questions about which life has more value are not easily solved.

What are connected vehicles?

As with other connected devices, connected vehicles are those that have internet access. They may also have local area network access as well. So this allows for everything from the basics, like GPS, all the way to the more advanced vehicle to vehicle (V2V) or vehicle to everything (V2X) connections. This technology will let cars sense the location of other cars, which will help with avoiding accidents and traffic jams. V2X connectivity could include data from smart traffic signals or even petrol pumps.[2]

The future of driving

If you’re old enough to remember KnightRider, you might be delighted at the prospect of getting your very own version of K.I.T.T. The timelines aren’t that far out. Some cars already have telemetrics packages, which can monitor driver behaviour and be used to assess risk levels for car insurance. We’re potentially looking at cars with AI virtual assistants in 2020, V2V in 2023 and V2X following on pretty quickly after. It’s driving, Jim, but not as we know it.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/from-science-fiction-to-reality-people-in-london-and-edinburgh-set-to-be-the-first-to-trial-self-driving-vehicle-services

[2] ‘Seven Connected Car Trends Fueling the Future’. 7 March 2018. https://medium.com/iotforall/7-connected-car-trends-fueling-the-future-946b05325531

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