In spite of all the hype about autonomous vehicles, the prospect of level 5 self-driving vehicles coming soon to a city near you remains some way off.
By 2030, it’s possible that we will see autonomous cars allowed to operate on some open roads, but for the time being, the evolution of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) in Europe is characterised by caution.
However, there are certain aspects of autonomy that are already being deployed on the roads of Europe – while others will become commonplace and even mandatory over the next couple of years.
Self-parking cars first appeared on European roads almost a decade ago, when Volkswagen Group unveiled new technology that could scan for a parking space before taking control of the steering wheel and manoeuvring the vehicle into the space.
Since then, many of the major OEMs have incorporated similar technology as an optional extra or – on more expensive models – as standard equipment.
Although they can take the stress out of parking in sought-after on-street locations and busy car parks, self-parking cars aren’t really an autonomous game-changer… yet.
Some experts believe the next level of self-parking cars – as Tesla’s Summon technology hints at – could be the key to reducing urban congestion. Some studies in the USA suggest that up to a third of vehicles cruising around the typical city are actually looking for a parking space. If the car could drop its occupants directly outside their destination before heading off autonomously to find a parking slot, this could dramatically reduce urban congestion.
Tesla Summon only works over distances up to 70m and there are some well-publicised ongoing issues with the technology, but it signposts one of the most practical applications of low-speed autonomous vehicle technology that could prove useful in the medium to long term.
Driver assistance safety features
The EU has mandated a suite of driver assistance devices which employ partial autonomy to reduce accidents which will become compulsory on all new cars sold in Europe from 2022.
The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) spearheaded the campaign for the introduction of the following connected and autonomous driving aids, which received the green light from MEPs last year.
Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA): in-car telemetry or geo-fencing to draw the driver’s attention to the legal speed limit.
Lane Departure Warning/Assist alert the driver when their car veers out of a motorway lane and – in some cases – nudge the vehicle back into line without any input from the driver.
Attention Assist monitors the driver’s eye movement and if they show signs of fatigue or drowsiness, tells them to take a break before continuing.
These innovations are part of a wider road safety initiative which places connected and autonomous vehicle technology at the heart of a concerted effort to halve the 25,000 fatalities recorded every year on the roads of Europe.
Over the next five years, they are expected to play a significant role in shifting consumer perceptions to autonomous technologies and demonstrating the positive impacts partial autonomy can deliver.
Driverless shuttle buses
After some well-publicised fatalities involving CAVs in the USA, there has been a subtle shift in the direction of autonomous innovation from private cars to public transport solutions.
For example, Google offshoot Waymo is working with Phoenix’s Valley Metro public transport system to ensure its autonomous shuttles provide first- and last-mile travel to Valley Metro customers.
A Waymo spokesperson said: “With the partnership with Valley Metro, we’re exploring mobility solutions that use self-driving technology to better connect travellers with the city’s existing buses and light rail. Working together, we’re exploring how self-driving vehicles can fill transportation and mobility gaps for riders across the Greater Phoenix area and help support the local infrastructure that already exists.”
In Europe, many of the current CAV trials on public roads involve driverless shuttle buses or ‘robo-cabs’ rather than private autonomous vehicles. Renault teamed up with global public transport provider Transdev and a number of technology partners to trial an on-demand shared mobility service in the Normandy city of Rouen to evaluate autonomous vehicles on the open road.
Using four electric Renault Zoe cars and a Lohr i-Cristal autonomous shuttle bus, the Rouen Autonomous Vehicle Lab allowed subscribers to hail a vehicle via a smartphone app at one of 17 stops along a 10km route in Rouen’s Technopole du Madrillet business park.
The new phase of testing is taking place in the suburb of Saclay, southwest of the capital, where five AVs will supplement the existing Saclay Plateau transportation systems.
In the UK, the Government-supported Autodrive Project trialled a range of autonomous vehicles in Milton Keynes and Coventry over a three-year period.
The trial’s pavement-based Aurrigo self-driving pods are a new class of vehicle that blurs the lines between public and private transport providing last mile solutions for both passengers and parcels.
More widespread availability of 5G will make it easier for connected cars to communicate with roadside infrastructure for managing vehicle speeds on smart motorways and – in the longer term – vehicle to vehicle connections that could facilitate collision avoidance devices.
5G connectivity could also be used to bill motorists for using toll roads or levy variable congestion charges for entering cities.
Last summer August, the EU unveiled an action plan to manage the cross-border rollout of 5G so that its benefits are felt as widely and quickly as possible.
The EU supports three Public-Private Partnerships which will set up 5G trials across more than 1000km of highway – including four cross-border corridors: Metz-Merzig-Luxembourg, Munich-Bologna via the Brenner Pass, and Porto-Vigo and Evora-Merida, between Spain and Portugal.
Image: an autonomous Renault Zoe and driverless pod in the Paris-Saclay autonomous vehicle trials (copyright: Renault).