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.”