Coventry at the heart of the UK’s driverless technology revolution

In 1897 the first British motor car rolled out of the Coventry-based Daimler factory and was driven to the Malvern Hills by the Honourable Evelyn Ellis, a pioneer of motorised travel on the continent and a director of Daimler. His enthusiasm for this modern mode of travel, and his refusal to obey the legal requirement to restrict self-propelled vehicles to 4mph preceded by a man with a red flag, forced a change in the law – and the beginning of Coventry’s love affair with the automobile. This love affair has never dimmed and the city’s reputation for cutting edge automotive technology has meant it stands squarely in the centre of the latest transport revolution: driverless vehicles.

UK Autodrive leads the way

In 2014 a 16-member consortium, UK Autodrive (which includes Coventry City Council and Coventry-based automotive businesses, RDM Group, JLR and TATA Motors European Technical Centre), won Innovate UK’s ‘Introducing Driverless Cars’ competition with the objective of putting the UK at the centre of global driverless technology development. UK Autodrive is using the £20m funding to develop both driverless and connected cars over a three year period (which ends in 2018) to the point where this technology becomes a day to day reality. This is a complex challenge, not least of which is testing public reaction to driverless cars (of which developing moral algorithms is an important part), developing the necessary infrastructure, and advising on the regulatory and legislative framework within which such vehicles will operate. In common with most technical advances, the law is lagging behind the technology and thus a conversation around the regulation of automated vehicles is being facilitated by consortium members, Gowling WLG, an international law firm (with its origins in Birmingham) and AXA, the insurance giant.

Moral dilemmas ahead

The government has identified three main benefits of driverless technology: better use of road space, enhanced mobility for those unable to drive, and improved road safety (human error is estimated to cause 85-90% of accidents). The latter poses a particularly interesting challenge for regulators: driverless technology is unlikely to eradicate all accidents so how comfortable will the general public be with any accident occurring over which they will have little or no control? How do you programme a vehicle to make ethical decisions when interacting with other road users? A public perception survey is currently in progress with results expected in the next few weeks.

Unlike trains and planes, driverless cars will be operating in unpredictable environments and will have to be programmed accordingly. In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ earlier this year, Professor Alan Winfield, a leading robot ethicist, posited the view that the best way to build public trust would be to install an ethical black box in all driverless cars so that a specially created Accident Investigation Branch could find out exactly what caused an accident and recommend improvements to manufacturers. Without a black box, he argued, the technology would struggle to gain public confidence. Given that driverless cars will be sharing the road with conventional cars for an interim period, this is a question needing an answer sooner rather than later.

Other issues lawyers and insurers are wrestling with include product liability, data protection requirements (driverless cars have to collect enormous amounts of data in order to operate) and security issues, as demonstrated last year by a cyber attack on BMW’s software which enabled hackers to gain access to cars by compromising their computer-operated door locks.

UK regulation is ahead of the competition

Compared to the US where only four States have legislated to allow driverless vehicles on public roads, and in Germany and Sweden where legislation is hindering rather than helping development, the UK regulatory environment is taking a more enlightened approach. Symptomatic of this is UK Autodrive’s current testing of pavement-based, driverless vehicles designed and built by Coventry-based RDM Group, and operating in public spaces. Anyone visiting Milton Keynes railway station in January might have spotted a small, pod-like vehicle trundling back and forth from the shopping area that can be called up via a smart phone app. They are guided to their destination from a pre-scanned map of the route, assisted by laser scanners, stereo cameras, and ultrasonic sensors. These pods have also been tested in Coventry and RDM is building another 40 or so for UK Autodrive to be in operation by mid-2018. Such has been the success of the technology that RDM is developing its own commercial version, Pod Zero (separate from the UK Autodrive project), aimed at markets in the Middle and Far East with applications ranging from airports and shopping malls to university campuses.

Coventry in the vanguard of automotive technology

Unlike its 19th century predecessor, this government wants to get ahead of the curve and have a regulatory framework in place which aids the UK’s adoption of driverless technology. There are still plenty of challenges ahead but the success of the pavement-based pods bodes well for the forthcoming road trials of UK Autodrive’s driverless cars, designed and manufactured by JLR and tested at MIRA’s proving ground last year. If all goes according to plan, we should see automated Jaguars on public roads in Coventry and Milton Keynes in 2018 – albeit with a test operator sitting behind the wheel. 120 years after the first car left Coventry, the city is poised, once again, to be in the vanguard of a worldwide transport revolution.