South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership
14 Jul 2021

Would you trust a self-driving car? They won’t be on our roads tomorrow, but within my lifetime it is a distinct possibility that I will be travelling in a fully self-driving (or autonomous) vehicle which does not require any driver input.  I’m a nervous passenger at the best of times, so putting my trust in a computer algorithm to drive a vehicle is going to be a difficult one for me. I’m reluctant to use some of the driver assistance technology that our current car has, such as the automatic parallel park function. That said, I’m happy to get on an aeroplane knowing that the auto pilot will take over the task of flying, and sometimes landing, the plane.

It is claimed that autonomous vehicle technology could improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to over 85 per cent of accidents. The driver will be able to hand control over to the vehicle, which will constantly monitor speed and keep a safe distance from other cars and road users. There are other potential benefits too; enabling transport to be greener, more efficient, able to better connect rural communities and provide better access for everyone. But to gain public support for widescale use of such technology, people need to see that safety is at the heart of the development of autonomous vehicles.

Progress in vehicle design, like shatter-resistant glass, three point-seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones, has played a huge part in saving casualties and reducing the severity of injuries in collisions. It is estimated that more than a million people around the world have survived car accidents thanks to the three-point seatbelt invented by Volvo in 1959.

Manufacturers are also making steady advancements in the level of driver assistance technology available. This is categorised by different levels of autonomy, starting at level 0 where there is no automation. Level 1 automation features include things like cruise control, which whilst controlling speed, requires the human driver to monitor the other aspects of driving such as steering and braking. 

Level 2 involves partial driving automation, where the vehicle can control both steering and accelerating / decelerating. We see this today in features such as lane departure warning/correction, automatic emergency braking and blind spot detection. With these levels of automation, the driver still has ultimate control and responsibility, must stay engaged with the driving task and constantly monitor the environment around them.

Levels 3 to 5 of automation see the vehicle system taking over increasing amounts of the driving task whilst the driver input decreases, and so are classed as “self driving”. At level 3 the vehicle’s automation system monitors the driving environment but the driver is still required to take over in certain circumstances. By level 5 the vehicle performs all driving tasks and no human interaction is required.
In April, the Department for Transport announced that we could see self-driving vehicles on British roads for the first time later this year, after they approved the use of Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) in vehicles for use on a motorway in slow traffic. It will allow the driver to take their attention away from the task of driving under certain circumstances and enable the car to drive itself, returning control to the driver when required. Technologies such as ALKS will pave the way for higher levels of automation in future.

And with this must come new ways in which to upskill existing and new drivers about how to transition to the next stage of vehicle automation, where drivers can potentially be doing other things such as reading or answering emails whilst the vehicle is in automated mode. For years our road safety training and publicity has been based on instilling in drivers the need to have their full attention on the road and not be distracted by technology in the vehicle.

But in the future, whilst those drivers in automated vehicles will be able to take their eye off the road and engage with the infotainment system in their vehicle, those driving less sophisticated vehicles will still need to be in full control behind the wheel, monitoring the road environment and not be distracted by what is on their phone whilst they are driving. So, whilst these two different systems are in operation there will be challenges in terms of communicating the relevant road safety messages and enforcing the applicable road traffic laws.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham have been trialling new training methods to help drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles to safely and effectively take back control from the vehicle when required. If adopted, the next challenge will be how this sort of training is delivered to the driving public.  There will be little appetite from drivers to take formal training and another driving test to enable them to drive a semi-automated vehicle.

Manufacturers and retailers could have a part to play in offering training when motorists take delivery of a vehicle from them. Learners drivers could receive the instruction as part of their lessons. Business drivers could be given instruction as part of their company’s driver training programmes. There is even talk of the infotainment system within the vehicle providing advice and guidance for drivers. It’s likely that as road safety officers, our job will have to evolve and develop to be familiar with the training, so that we can impart key messages to the public. Raising awareness at this time of change will be an important and significant aspect of our work.

Of course, it will take a number of years for the technology to deliver level 4 and 5 self-driving vehicles. Furthermore, with the average UK car being eight-years-old, it will be longer still until the vehicle fleet is made up of significant numbers of self-driving cars. In the meantime, we will have to adapt our road safety education, engineering and enforcement approaches to accommodate the ever-increasing levels of automated vehicles on our network.

How rapidly the manufacturers continue to develop the technology, how swiftly governments approve it for use on the public highway, how quickly the public accepts these higher levels of vehicle automation and whether such technology will be affordable is yet to be seen. All these factors will contribute to when, in the future, the taxi I call to take me home after a night out turns up with a driver or not. And then I have to decide whether I’m happy to get in and be driven home by a machine!

Until next time, stay safe.