Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

What driverless cars could mean for engineers

Driverless cars could eventually be programmed to run complete journeys at the press of a button, radically altering the type of transport infrastructure needed across the UK, a key figure has predicted.

Nick Jones, transport technologist at public body Innovate UK, said the vehicles could play their part in reshaping social patterns.

He spoke to NCE after the government gave the green light for driverless cars to be tested on public roads. Trials will take place in four cities under a £33M programme to develop the technology and gauge how it is received and used by the public.

Jones said: “Various levels of automation are within our grasp. We started with anti-lock braking systems 20 years ago, and now have sensors, driver-assisted parking and even automatic braking.

“We are trying to take the final leap into cars that can drive themselves. They are built around sensors, detection, laser and lidar.

“Some cars will run on predetermined paths where they know the infrastructure. They see the world in 3D and we imagine in the future you may be able to put a postcode in and off you go.”

In the meantime, the trials in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry will see various vehicles put through their paces with humans behind the wheel ready to take control if required.

These trials will last for up to three years, and see a gradual growth in the type of environments the cars are exposed to.

“We started with the Meridian shuttle off road in Greenwich, and the next stage of that will be autonomous parking in a car park,” said Jones.

“It will be done in stages. As we progress we will slowly get into controlled environments on the roads – maybe limiting access for other vehicles, and putting safety precautions in place.”

As well as guarding against accidents and negative publicity, staging the trials will help build up an understanding of how the public reacts to and uses the vehicles.

“We need to understand the public perception,” said Jones. “There are a lot of benefits but there may be some drawbacks. There will be behavioural studies as we go through the trials.

“There will be trials with members of the public. We will be asking for volunteers who want to get involved.”

The trials – which will receive £19M funding from the government – will see a variety of vehicles tested in a range of environments.

In Greenwich, the Meridian shuttle and a second vehicle will initially be put through their paces on a track near the O2 Arena.

In Bristol, a BAE Wildcat vehicle will be tested off road, while the Arup-led UK Autodrive consortium is developing plans for trials in Coventry.

Pavements in Milton Keynes will be used by the electrical Lutz Pathfinder.

“These trials give a platform to build on,” said Jones. “We are trying to stimulate the market but we have to be careful about how much public money we put in.

“We hope this technology will develop into more intelligent mobility. We need to understand how people may change their travel arrangements.

“Will driverless cars take people to train stations? Or serve other purposes?”

The trials and the data they produce could have huge implications for engineers.

“We are seeing changes in demographics and a shift among younger people away from buying as many cars,” said Jones.

“We want to avoid building more roads – and that’s about how we better use the infrastructure we already have.

“Intelligent mobility could assist the ageing and the young populations.”

Readers' comments (4)

  • Driverless vehicles are inevitable and will offer massive benefits for individuals and society as a whole. Each journey can be optimised for speed, safety, and energy usage. Speeds on each road can be optimised for maximum throughput. Vehicles (goods and passengers) can travel in convoys to maximise efficiency. No one needs to own a vehicle - call one up and leave it when you arrive. Have multiple automated pick-ups or pay extra for personal routing. All town centres redesigned for drop off and pick up with car parking underground outside the cities. The changes are immense and will take many years but I sincerely hope that within 20years I can ask for a car to pick me up, take me to a pub (or anywhere at anytime), and take me home without my need to own a car that would sit on my drive and do nothing 85% of the year - especially as I get older - and at rates that are affordable without the need to discuss politics and football with the driver.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Driverless vehicles are inevitable and will offer massive benefits for individuals and society as a whole. Each journey can be optimised for speed, safety, and energy usage. Speeds on each road can be optimised for maximum throughput. Vehicles (goods and passengers) can travel in convoys to maximise efficiency. No one needs to own a vehicle - call one up and leave it when you arrive. Have multiple automated pick-ups or pay extra for personal routing. All town centres redesigned for drop off and pick up with car parking underground outside the cities. The changes are immense and will take many years but I sincerely hope that within 20years I can ask for a car to pick me up, take me to a pub (or anywhere at anytime), and take me home without my need to own a car that would sit on my drive and do nothing 85% of the year - especially as I get older - and at rates that are affordable without the need to discuss politics and football with the driver.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Ivanka Brown

    Cars are not only used for transport. People often use them as a 'mobile shed' to store or carry stuff whilst walking unencumbered. How about those who go shopping and put the shopping bags in the car while they have lunch? When you check out of a hotel, have you ever left your baggage in the car, while you explore you location? Or maybe more appropriate for the audience, how many people keep their PPE in the car? Can we foresee expensive locker/left luggage systems?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • If nothing else, driverless vehicles offer us the opportunity to improve road safety and reduce the massive impact of injury and death.
    Extract from 2004 WHO report on Traffic accidents in EU:
    "Road traffic injuries in the WHO European Region
    represent a major public health problem. About 127
    thousand people are killed and about 2.4 million injured
    every year. The cost of road traffic injuries to society is an
    estimated 2% of a country’s gross domestic product.
    About one third of the victims are aged 15–29 years."

    and a WHO update in 2013:
    "The report indicates that worldwide the total number of road traffic deaths remains unacceptably high at 1.24 million per year. Only 28 countries, covering 7% of the world’s population, have comprehensive road safety laws on five key risk factors: drinking and driving, speeding, and failing to use motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, and child restraints"

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.