Steering into unknown territory


Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

The prospect of vehicles travelling the country’s roads without the help of a driver inevitably raises many issues. It also offers many challenges and opportunities for the engineering profession. The government announced in July that supervised tests of experimental driverless vehicles will be permitted on the UK’s public highways from January 2015.

The engineering profession’s responsibilities lie not only in developing the technology but also in shaping the regulatory framework under which these revolutionary vehicles will be accepted as safe for public use. Where previously each driver could be held responsible for the safe handling of their car, responsibility for the operation of the vehicle and its interaction with passengers and its environment will shift firmly to the engineers who designed, programmed and manufactured it.

The importance of the UK’s investment in technologies to support autonomous vehicles featured prominently in the government’s industrial strategy for the automotive sector, Driving Success, published in July last year by the Automotive Council, a partnership between industry and Business, Innovation and Skills(BIS) - see Ingenia 57.

Now new legislation will be introduced to allow engineers the freedom to develop driverless vehicles for use on public highways. As part of this process, Dr Vince Cable, Secretary of State for BIS, announced on 30 July this year that there will be a review of road regulations before the end of 2014. Government and the public alike will be keenly interested in how engineers are going to demonstrate that such a radical innovation can meet safety expectations.

From an engineering perspective, a driverless vehicle is less like a traditional product and more like a service offering,where the user buys a result (in this case transportation), rather than an physical object(a car). Users will program the destination of their vehicle, but the manufacturer controls the quality of the journey. Innovative companies will come up with all sorts of ways of offering services using this new form of transportation. After all, why would anyone own a driverless car when it could be available on demand for hire?

The review of the regulatory framework governing how such vehicles might be engineered considers two use scenarios: firstly that a passenger would have no ability to control a driverless vehicle, such as the pods at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 that transport people to and from the business car park, and secondly that a passenger/driver can take back control at short notice. Both situations are likely to provoke considerable public debate.

Our national capability for innovative automotive engineering is world renowned and the 2013 industrial strategy demonstrates keen political interest in the subject. The UK could become an international leader in this field. Milton Keynes will be the first city in the UK to introduce driverless pods for hire by the public in early 2015. The Transport Systems Catapult funded by Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) and itself located in Milton Keynes, could provide a vital hub for piloting new ideas. However, in a fast-moving technical landscape, overly prescriptive regulation will stifle innovation and restrict market access.

Other tools are needed which engineers can also use in their safety cases. Some of the most successful recent developments in the safety performance of cars have been driven not by regulation but by voluntary industry standards and market competition. Writing prescriptive regulations forces all engineers to adopt the same, predetermined solution. Using consensus standards to define performance requirements between the users, industry and the regulators can be a powerful alternative to regulation, in this case enabling the designers of driverless cars to compete through innovative approaches to the new safety challenges.

As the government embarks on its review of the regulatory framework for driverless vehicles, engineers must ensure that industry remains in control of the innovation landscape and is in a position to explore and deliver new solutions to the technical challenges ahead, many of which were identified in the 2013 industrial strategy. A combination of new industry-led standards aligned with minimum regulatory change could be the most effective framework for government to deliver its ambitions and for industry in the UK to secure its place at the forefront of this new global market opportunity.

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