Self-driving cabs on London streets by 2021. It’s a bold claim, but not quite what the headlines suggest. The reality? Something much more mundane, and perhaps even more useful: autonomous buses.
Wired reports that the news that minicab firm Addison Lee was teaming up with University of Oxford spinout Oxbotica to develop driverless cars caught the imagination of the UK press. But in reality neither Oxbotica nor Addison Lee are promising a fully automated car, with no human safety driver in the front seat. Indeed, Addison Lee isn’t planning to use the technology for minicabs, but for shuttle buses and ride sharing, notes a company spokeswoman.
It is looking for full automation, though. And three years is a short time to not only fine-tune a challenging technology, but to get regulatory approval, ensure security, finalise a business model, and get the public on side. Can it be done in three years? The answer depends on who you talk to and also what is meant by driverless cars.
That full level of automation - level 5 on the driverless car scale - isn’t likely in three years, says Graham Parkhurst, professor at the University of West England and the director of its Centre for Transport and Society. “Operating at level 5 on public roads implies much better-than-human reliability in detection, identification, and responsive operation in the full range of road environments and conditions,” says Parkhurst.
And that’s before adding in the complexities of London’s roads - you could certainly pick an easier city to start with, notes Dr Shan Luo, an assistant professor in robotics at the University of Liverpool. “The behaviours of pedestrians on streets are hard to predict and bad human drivers can also cause trouble for a well-behaved AI driver,” he says. “Narrow roads and complicated street layouts can be challenging for human drivers; will they be easier for AI drivers? Probably not.”
So what is technically possible within three years? The plan is to spend the next three years finding out, says Oxbotica CEO Graham Smith. On a technical front, Smith says that 12 to 15 Addison Lee vehicles will be loaded up with Oxbotica’s sensors, using cameras, LIDAR and radar, to map London’s roads, capturing everything from roads to infrastructure to signs. The aim is to capture 250,000 miles of London, which should take less than a year, he says. That data will be used to power Oxbotica’s navigational maps as well as for training autonomous systems. And rather than minicabs, we’re talking shuttle buses. Smith said Oxbotica is already in discussion with TfL to see where autonomous vehicles could help fill in missing gaps in public transport. “We’re looking at specific and different types of use to see where autonomy could help improve local congestion and help address the needs of local people,” says Smith.
An Addison Lee spokeswoman noted: “The first stage, with a 2021 target date, is likely to be in corporate shuttles, around airports or campuses to get to work, to study or the airport. For the foreseeable future, our premium services will continue to be driven by our 5,000 drivers.”
In other words, 2021 likely won’t see on-demand driverless minicabs, but automated buses filling in transport gaps in certain areas or on specific routes. It’s a start, and could lead one day to full level-5 automation, but it’s not what most of us imagine when we picture driverless cars.