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The Road To Driverless Cars

1 December 2014

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), or driverless cars, used to be in the realms of science fiction, but today most of the major vehicle manufacturers, suppliers and tech companies are involved in AV projects of one form or another.

Indeed, the Government has said that it wants the UK to become a centre of excellence in this area and an early adopter of the technology, leading to several trial sites across the UK. AV is also a topic that Costain is very interested in, particularly in how it will be integrated into an Intelligent Transport System (ITS) of the future, which is an area that Costain is heavily involved in.

Russ Davies, Costain’s Highways Technology Tunnel Specialist, recently presented a paper to the biannual UK Road Tunnel Operators Forum, explaining how AVs might operate in and interact with road tunnels.

Representatives from the Highways Agency, Transport for London and a number of transportation consultancies attended the event in Daventry recently. Speaking to the UK’s tunnel operators, Russ made the point that drivers make countless on-the-spot decisions, and will normally, although not always, and with some guidance, try to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation. Replicating this in a mass-market AV is unlikely to happen any time soon, said Russ.

“Due to being so enclosed, road tunnels present a much more difficult operating environment for vehicles, particularly during a road traffic incident, which is why there are so many safety systems in place. But for a driverless vehicle, how will it react to a fire accompanied by thick smoke?” said Russ.

Delivering his insights, Russ said that while AVs are a worthy goal, with undoubted environmental, convenience and safety benefits, the journey towards embracing full AV on our roads is likely to be a long one.

The deployment of AVs today is less about technological capability and more about the legal and commercial complexities associated with having such vehicles on our roads. Therefore, rather than an end goal in itself, the journey to full AV will create opportunities to devise radically innovative technology with the potential to change driver behaviours and improve road safety, said Russ.

“If we set our sights on AV, a number of useful technologies and operating protocols will emerge along the way that will change the way we drive and improve safety on our roads.  Even now, we are seeing blind spot and lane change driver aids cascading from high-end luxury vehicles into mainstream offerings.  Some of these systems provide a form of ‘autonomy’ in that they can momentarily take control of the vehicle away from the driver to avoid an accident,” said Russ.

Another area which is likely to see significant safety benefits is vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, which is in line with the ITS ethos of keeping road users better informed and to make safer, more coordinated, and 'smarter' use of existing transport networks.

“I would like the highway to talk to vehicles, stopping them from entering a tunnel affected by a serious incident, or remotely marshal vehicles as they approach the tunnel, enforcing lane discipline and directing vehicles safely passed a stranded car with hardly any disruption to overall flow,” said Russ.




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