Car and tech companies seem to be working together like never before in the global race to bring an autonomous car to the market. They are focusing their efforts on particular elements in order to differentiate themselves from the competition.

For example, the UK based project HumanDrive are, according to their own website, “using machine learning to develop natural, human-like vehicle control”. This is consortium of car manufacturers, a government body, universities and engineering and tech companies, including: Nissan, Hitachi, Hariba Mira, Transport Systems Catapult, SBD Automotive, Cranfield University, Atkins, Aimsun, Highways England and University of Leeds.

Currently, they are working towards a prototype autonomous car that will be tested on a 200 mile journey through actual traffic, motorways, country roads and A-roads in December 2019. One of the driving concepts is that of producing a ‘human-like’ driving experience by using AI software that means the vehicle is ‘learning’ as it is tested. They aim to position the UK as the leader in driverless car safety and testing with cutting edge simulations and testing sites.

Why is the UK so interesting to developers of this new technology?

There is a worldwide race between countries to be the first to commercially manufacture driverless vehicles. The particular characteristics of UK roads provide interesting differentials that aren’t apparent in other nations.

Transport Systems Catapult’s chief technology officer, Mark Westwood, explains: “UK roads throw up some particular challenges. They are different from American roads, with roundabouts and demanding country lanes. These are really testing environments. This project is about advancing the state of the art and trying to do something more demanding. The control system will learn to drive like a human.”

Are other countries and companies focusing their R&D on the same thing?

It seems that there are already attempts to carve out distinctive USPs between the different developers of autonomous vehicles. Waymo (part of the Google empire) are focusing on driverless taxis, with a 600 strong fleet of Chrysler minivans to test – and more on order. As John Krafcik, Waymo chief, said: “With the world’s first fleet of fully self-driving vehicles on the road, we’ve moved from research and development, to operations and deployment. The Pacifica Hybrid minivans offer a versatile interior and a comfortable ride experience, and these additional vehicles will help us scale.”

Daimler is going after the same driver less taxi market, with specificity of design as their main selling point. Wilko Stark, Daimler VP, explains that their vehicles have been designed “from the beginning” specifically as a driverless tax. In his words, they are not just “technology-kit mounted on a serial vehicle.”

The driverless tax war is between Daimler’s commitment to potentially superior tech and higher vehicle quality and Waymo backed Chryslers simply getting over the finishing line first.

General Motors have announced that every new Cadillac will have autonomous driving features by 2020. Currently, only their CT6 sedan has their Super Cruise System, which enables autonomous highway driving. Cadillac is also working on V2X innovations for cars released in 2023. V2X means ‘vehicle talks to everything’ – traffic lights, roadworks, other cars and infrastructures. This communication means the car can alter its pathway accordingly. For example, to avoid a traffic jam ahead.

What do autonomous cars have to do with Britain’s future transport options?

Greg Clarke, the Business and Energy Secretary sees the project as part of the wider transportation picture telling the BBC: “Low-carbon and self-driving vehicles are the future and they are going to drive forward a global revolution in mobility. Trailblazing projects like the HumanDrive project will play a vital role helping us deliver on that ambition.”

Making the mental leap to trusting your car to drive itself, will be up to the individual consumer. Would you have one?

There is no doubt that the concept raises some interesting ethical questions that the law needs to answer before autonomous vehicles take over our roads.

For example, the fatal collisions involving both Uber’s and Tesler’s autonomous cars lead to questions about the efficacy of AI sensors and how to prosecute such a case. In Tesler’s case, the car didn’t detect an 18 –wheel truck travelling across a highway and subsequently ran straight into it, killing the driver.

Uber’s car ran into a woman walking with her bicycle outside the crosswalk. It didn’t even slow down as it approached, showing that the sensors didn’t detect her presence. Is the non-active driver still responsible because they didn’t intervene? Is the vehicle manufacturer responsible because the sensors didn’t detect their presence at all? This is just one of many issues that need to be resolved before autonomous vehicles become commonplace.

There is no doubt that the R&D involved is at the cutting edge of a number of different technological and manufacturing specialisms. If you are involved in any element of the UK’s development process, you could fund future developments with a substantial R&D tax credit amount. Don’t forget to take your R&D tax relief application into account from the start of your project, then you will be accumulating the necessary information as you work.


Jamie Smith