Driving autonomous vehicle safety forward
Benedict Peters, VP Marketing at FiveAI, discusses how UK motor regulations are encouraging autonomous vehicle innovation and why it’s safer to have fully autonomous vehicles on the road.
The UK market driving autonomous vehicle innovation
The UK is a great place to work on driverless cars for several reasons, not least because it’s one of the few countries that did not ratify the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, the language of which can only be interpreted as stipulating that a human must always be in control of a vehicle. There are clarifications and changes needed to other regulations that do apply in the UK before we’ll see fully autonomous vehicles in commercial service on our roads, but the UK Government is committed to addressing these challenges, having published a ‘Code of Practice’ in 2015 for testing autonomous vehicle technology and launching a consultation on regulatory changes in July 2016.
The great British weather is also something we can use to our advantage. Rain, wind, snow and bright sunshine can all be challenging environments for autonomous vehicles, just as they are for human drivers. Developing and safely testing technology here in the UK during these conditions will help us export the technology all over the world. Of course, there will be some conditions for which it is never safe to drive, irrespective of whether it’s a human or an autonomous system in control of the vehicle, but when conditions permit, we’re confident that the system we develop here in the UK will be safer than any human.
What’s more, the UK is home to some of the best software engineering talent in the world, be that embedded software engineers, automotive engineers, or computer scientists. We’re producing some of the best Artificial Intelligence (A.I) PhDs and graduates in the world. If you work in A.I. or machine learning, driverless vehicles are one of the most exciting projects to be working on and are why we feel we’re greatly positioned at FiveAI in this emerging market.
Five levels of autonomy
There are five levels of autonomy, from no autonomy at level zero to level five, which defines fully autonomous solutions where a human is never expected to take over control of the vehicle.
State-of-the-art systems in production right now are Level 2 compliant, where the technology can control the speed and steering of the vehicle, but the human driver must provide constant supervision and oversight. In the very near future we can expect level three autonomy, where the system is able to fully take control from the human under specific circumstances, like driving on the M25 for example. In the run-up to leaving the M25 the driver is given warning and then must take back control of the vehicle, failing that the vehicle would come to a stop at a safe place. This conditional vehicle autonomy is certainly the focus for many car manufacturers right now.
Challenges of autonomous vehicle technology
Conditional autonomy suffers from the fact that it is hard to predict, in a timely fashion, exactly when to give control back to the human driver and it’s very difficult for human drivers to quickly and safely switch from what they were doing to having situational awareness on the road.
That highlights an intrinsic issue with driver assistance technologies that automate the driving task to a large degree but not completely: drivers quickly build up overconfidence in the systems abilities. We’ve already seen, despite warnings to the contrary, that consumers disengage from providing continual oversight for the Level 2 systems that are available today, which can then lead to catastrophic consequences. Level 3 systems are yet another iteration of this same problem: sharing a large part of the driving task with human drivers will always lead to confusion for the consumer which can be very dangerous.
At FiveAI, we believe the safest approach is to avoid sharing any element of the driving task with humans: our system will be capable of handling any situation that it comes across without any human intervention. This is described as Level 5 autonomy; although it’s much harder technically than any other level, we believe it’s ultimately safer.
There are multiple pulling factors for autonomous vehicle technology. Advanced driverless assistance features sell more cars because consumers find them convenient, and up to a point they can save accidents and save lives, but the safety case for a broader reliance on these technologies is much less clear. Currently there is tension between introducing technology incrementally that sells more vehicles or offering level five, full-autonomy, which is optimised for safety.
With full Level 5 autonomy, there is no longer a distraction issue, the human passenger will never be required to intervene, except perhaps to activate a safe disengagement function; that means journey time can finally and safely be used productively, i.e. as relaxation time or to get on with some work.
Moreover, full autonomy is also the key enabler for delivering super low-cost, ultra convenient mobility-as-a-service (MaaS). That’s because vehicles can be massively more utilised when shared, spreading their expense across many more user journeys and because, without a dedicated human driver, the cost per kilometer can approach that of today’s mass transit transport means of buses and trains. When this kind of MaaS is available, we predict there will be a huge shift away from owning commuter and leisure cars, to using taxis and ride-hailing services to consumption of mobility in this new way, meaning a corresponding slowdown in vehicle sales in developed markets. Many vehicle OEMs, transportation operators and car rental companies have already recognised this inevitable shift and are adapting their business models so that they can thrive in the emerging status quo.