Driverless Cars Given The Go-Ahead In The UK

Will it now be okay to drink and drive?

Very soon, in the UK, the designated driver question could be consigned to history after the British government gave the green light for the testing of driverless cars on British public roads, commencing in January 2015.

While Google has been attracting most of the headlines with their Google-Pod, which is also still at the prototype stage, several research groups across the UK, including Oxford University and Nuneaton-based engineering research group, Mira, have working prototypes ready to go as well.

The government has made ten million pounds available and has invited cities to compete to host one of the three trials of the available technology. There is much to sort out before the trial begins, such as who would pay in the event of an accident, and Ministers have ordered an urgent review of the UK’s road regulations to accommodate the test period. Civil servants in the Ministry of Transport have been given until the end of this year to publish a review of road regulations, which will cover the need for self-drive vehicles to comply with safety and traffic laws, and involve changes to the Highway Code, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales.

Business Secretary, Vince Cable, revealed the details of the new plan at a research facility belonging to Mira. “Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society,” he said.

The term “driverless car” covers a multitude of variations; in effect, things like cruise control, automatic breaking and self-park offer a certain amount of autonomy. But the term is now used to refer to vehicles which take charge of getting the occupants from A to B, and all you do is determine where B is – consider it autopilot for cars.

There are a few competing technologies with LIDAR (light detection and ranging) in the forefront of the field. This technology is already in use creating maps for Google and Nokia, and basically works by measuring how lasers bounce off millions of points surrounding the vehicle every second.

Another and some say complimentary system is ‘computer vision’, where software makes sense of a 360 degree scan around the vehicle and warn drivers of pedestrians, cyclists, roadworks or other objects that may cause an obstruction.

Much of the debate now, though, is more about whether to allow the cars to be like the Google prototype that was unveiled in May, which had abandoned the familiar controls that would allow for the passengers to resume control if something went awry.

This will not be the first open road test for driverless cars; Nissan carried out Japan’s first one in 2013 and US States like California and Nevada have approved tests where Google’s driverless cars have completed some 300,000 miles on the open road and has much of its technology now being tested with the likes of Audi and Toyota. The likes of Nissan and BMW are developing their own technology. Most recently, the Chinese search engine, Baidu, announced that they had commenced their own project (admittedly, the article that we featured on that one may have been a little bit of a spoof).

Image: BBC

Of course, some companies are still having trouble hiding all the sensors.

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