Can British Roads Cater To Self-Driving Cars?

We ask a (not so) futuristic question: are British roads capable of catering to self-driving cars?

The future is upon us. Last year, the UK was the first country in the world to announce it would allow for autonomous vehicles to drive at low speed on motorways. Indeed, as the country invests in innovative projects to fund a true transport revolution, fantastic progress has been made in the trials for self-driving cars.

But as car technology continues to evolve, are the roads of Britain able to keep up with the future of mobility? What are the current conditions of our streets? What changes and improvements should be made to accommodate the arrival of autonomous cars? In this article we try to provide these pressing questions with an answer.

Recent updates

Some people were hopeful that we would see self-driving cars toot and steer across the country by the end of 2021. Evidently, they were being a bit too optimistic. In fact, as things stand, we are not quite ready to entirely embrace what was once only science fiction. AI technology is undoubtedly growing at an exponential rate, but it’s fair to say it still has some way to go.

While we may have to wait for fully self-driving cars to finally grace our roads, manufacturers are working hard to develop conditional driving automation vehicles. Sister of the splendid Jaguar E-PACE, the Jaguar I-PACE, for instance, is a modern car with an InControl system that offers both standard and optional driving assistance. British company Jaguar created this model with the help of Waymo, Google’s very own autonomous vehicle project.

The exciting news is that this innovation in Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) coincides with last April’s updates on self-driving cars. Specifically, it has been announced that all vehicles equipped with Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) technology will be listed as autonomous. In short, as long as they’re given a GB type approval, they will be deemed to be fit to hit the roads. The only limitation is that they must not exceed speeds of 37mph.

The future: self-driving cars
The future of motoring – Photo credit: Continental Tyres

How the Highway Code is adapting

What’s more, to support the commercialisation of self-driving vehicles, the UK government is acting to make changes to the Highway Code. By adding a whole new section to the Code, they are addressing the safe use of AVs. What a way to celebrate its 90th anniversary!

The new sections instruct drivers to stay alert while sitting inside an autonomous vehicle. Indeed, drivers should always be ready to intervene or take control of the car if needed. Moreover, it goes on to specify that drivers are still “responsible for the vehicle being in a roadworthy condition, having a current MOT test certificate if applicable, and being taxed and insured.”

What do our roads look like right now?

Currently, there is no denying that our roads are not ready to welcome AVs yet. That said, slowly but surely, good progress is being made.

The truth is that our road networks are simply too complex to be able to accommodate self-driving cars. In this respect, one suggestion has been made: segregate autonomous vehicles from manual ones on the road. This would continue to be the norm until connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) eventually outnumber diesel and petrol-fuelled cars. Furthermore, this means that new bridges and underpasses would have to be built to ensure everybody’s safety on the streets. However, there are a couple of problems with the said proposal. Firstly, there may not be enough land to create new, separated infrastructure; secondly, it could be a very pricey process.

Ultimately, it would take around 30 years to reach the level of infrastructure that is required to safely provide for self-driving cars. For the early stages, it has been suggested that the best solution would be to separate sections of the roadways, rather than revolutionising them altogether.

To ensure the optimal performance of CAVs, communication systems need to be optimised too. In fact, these cars rely massively on data transfer through the internet which currently may not work perfectly in all areas of the country.

One final possible hurdle is represented by traffic signs and road markings. In fact, it is fundamental to maintain their clarity and visibility, while also digitalising them. This addition would help CAVs to identify them and behave accordingly.

Road design for self-driving cars
Road design for self-driving cars – Photo credit: Continental Tyres

Advancing roadway design

Among the best advantages of the planned introduction of AVs is that road infrastructure advancements are in the pipeline.

One of the projects is CAVIAR (Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: Infrastructure Appraisal Readiness), which is carried out between Loughborough University, construction business Galliford Try, and Highways England. Winner of Highways England’s innovation and air quality competition, the project focuses on tackling the CAV-related problem of Britain’s complex roadway design.

Specifically, the CAVIAR platform is set out to examine real raw data, with the aim to simulate how CAVs respond to road merging, dynamic lane changes and environmental conditions.

John Mathewson, Highways England’s Senior ITS Advisor, explains:

“This research will build on our understanding and give us further insight into how connected and autonomous vehicles would operate on England’s motorways and major A roads and what challenges they may face.”

CAVIAR isn’t the only project on a mission to improve the roadway infrastructure. In this respect, a ‘smart city hub’ is being developed in Ireland, where AV technology will be tested on 7.5 miles of complex roads. Led by Jaguar London Rover, the project’s objective is to evaluate its sensory data through a number of different simulations.

There is also a trial route being built between Birmingham and Coventry. Stretching for 186 miles, the Midlands Future Mobility Route adopts current road infrastructure for about 95% of the route. To further support the research, tools such as communication units, weather stations, accurate GPS, and smart CCTV will be implemented too.

To conclude, there is no hiding that fully self-driving cars are still on the agenda. Yes, we may have to wait a little longer until we see autonomous vehicles on our roads. However, with all the extensive research on British roadway design currently in place, we are bound to see some successful results in the near future.

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