What future for rural driverless cars?

The average driver in England spends 235 hours driving every year – equivalent to six working weeks – and must concentrate on driving 100% of the time. Connected and Automated Vehicles (CAVs) are changing this, enabling the driver to choose whether they want to be in control or handover the task of driving to the vehicle itself.

While many people take driving for granted, others do not have a driving licence, access to a vehicle or have to give up driving due to ill-health. For these people automated vehicles opens up access to cars. So where do rural dwellers fit in the design, development and deployment of CAVs? Jessica Sellick investigates.

According to the Department for Transport (DfT), a fully autonomous vehicle is ‘capable of completing journeys safely and efficiently, without a driver, in all normally encountered traffic, road and weather conditions’. Connected means the vehicle can link to other devices and while it can operate in driverless mode, there must by a qualified person in the driving seat who is able to take manual control as and when required. Vehicles are being developed with a range of connected capabilities – from technologies that send and receive information vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), vehicle-to-device (V2D), vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) and vehicle-to-the-cloud (V2C). Automation ranges from ‘driver assistance’, ‘lane assist’ and ‘park assist’; through to full self-driving automation. Back in January 2014 the Society of Automotive Engineers produced a report which identified six levels of driving automation: from no automation (Level 0) to full automation (Level 5). Some vehicles are autonomous and connected whereas others are connected only or autonomous only.

Government has been supporting the research, development, demonstration and deployment of CAVs for some time. According to Government, the UK is uniquely positioned to bring CAV technologies to the market – having some of the most challenging and diverse road and weather conditions in Europe. Under the Coalition Government (2010-2015)) Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) was identified as one of ‘eight great technologies’. In July 2015 the Government established the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV). A joint unit of the Department for Transport (DfT) and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Centre works across Government to support the early market for CAVs – enabling Government to develop policy at the pace that this rapidly advancing technology requires. CCVA is providing over £250 million in funding, matched by industry, to position the UK at the forefront of CAV research, development and use. The establishment of the CCVA followed the publication of a regulatory review by the DfT (which found existing frameworks did not pose a barrier to testing autonomous vehicles on public roads) and a Code of Practice for AV testing.

In February 2017 the Government published its Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill - setting out how automated vehicles involved in road traffic accidents would be treated for insurance purposes. Most recently, the Industrial Strategy, released in November 2017, outlines the establishment of a flexible regulatory framework for transportation to boost ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles and the blurring of distinctions between public and private transport. This includes plans for an Automotive Sector Deal.

Since 2015/2016 CCVA, BEIS and Innovate UK have been supporting three CAV trials in the UK: the GATEway Project in Greenwich (London), VENTURER in Bristol and south Gloucestershire and the UK Autodrive Project in Milton Keynes and Coventry.

In September 2016 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into the future uses of driverless vehicles in the UK. Their report (published in March 2017) – while setting out the potential benefits of CAV and recognising the work undertaken on regulation and standards to date – made four main recommendations: (1) Government is too focused on driverless cars when the early benefits of this highly automated technology are more likely to appear in other sectors such as marine and agriculture; (2) the Government needs to establish a Robotics and Autonomous Systems Leadership Council to play a key role in developing a strategy for CAV; (3) there is a clear need for Government to commission research to weigh the potential human and financial implications of CAV; and (4) Government should sit alongside industry and other partners to position the UK so that it can take full advantage of the opportunities that CAV will bring to different sectors. The report sets out the business case for investing in these technologies (and work being undertaken by existing manufacturers and new entrants) to suggest Government should not invest or take the lead in this area rather ensure if makes a ‘comprehensive testing offer for CAV’ to attract manufacturers and academics to the UK. Crucially, the report states ‘this should include one or more large scale testing environments covering real world urban and rural environments’ (page 4).

What are the implications of this policy context for rural areas? I offer three points.

Firstly, what are some of the benefits of CAVs for rural areas? Proponents often identify safety as a key benefit of CAVs: they don’t get drunk, drive whilst talking on the phone or texting, go through red lights, have blind spots, get distracted or wonder who has the right of way. Accident statistics compiled by the DfT shows that in 2016 1,792 people died on Britain’s road, with a further 24,101 seriously injured. Previous data has shown that while rural roads carry 40% of road traffic, they accounted for 62% of road fatalities. Speed limits combined with blind twists and turns, mixed road users and other distractions are often cited as increasing the risk of a driver losing control if they are not driving with due care and attention. Those in favour of CAVs not only point to the possible reduction in fatalities but also to the prevention of collisions – between vehicles and with livestock/large animals.

Proponents also see CAVs as having the potential to overcome some of the mobility related difficulties rural dwellers face. The International Association of Public Transport (UTIP), for example, points towards the affordability, sustainability and convenience that CAVs might bring to rural areas. On the one hand, CAVs may address the reduction of bus/public transport in rural areas; on the other hand, CAVs could be viewed as part of a diversified public transport system (i.e., with car sharing vehicles or autonomous mini-buses feeding into transport hubs). In October 2017 the German transport company Deutsche Bahn began a trial using a self-driving vehicle on the roads of a rural town in Bavaria to residents from the train station to the town centre.

For me, CAVs offer potential to improve people’s quality of life so they can more easily grow up, live, work and age in a rural place.

But for CAVs to be adopted in rural areas, the ‘offer’ and ‘benefits’ need to be made clearer – who will use them and for what purpose?

Secondly, what are some of the barriers to uptake in rural areas? Not everyone finds the prospect of CAVs appealing. For every accident a driver may cause they will have avoided thousands of others. Some worry about separating people from the driving process – while planes fly on autopilot, pilots are trained to take over should the computer fail. While media reports document CAVs involved in crashes or collisions – often the technology on board the self-driving vehicle has responded correctly but the other ‘human’ road user has not stopped or responded: how will CAVs and non-CAVs ‘share’ the roads? Opponents are also concerned that CAVs could bring an end to the jobs of those who drive for a living (e.g. lorry drivers, taxi drivers) and/or those that regulate road users (e.g. traffic police, parking wardens). Indeed some believe the take up of CAVs will mean fewer parking spaces will be needed thus reducing revenue for Local Authorities.

For me, Government policy appears to be focusing on ‘smart vehicles’ and ‘regulation’, and what is missing are more of an emphasis on ‘smart roads’. The RAC Foundation has considered the readiness of the road network for CAVs. Such vehicles are likely to require road surfaces, markings, signs and signals to be well maintained. Some CAVs need sensors to guide them, computers to steer them and digital maps to follow. Indeed, the Select Committee recommended Highways England and Local Transport Authorities engage with motor manufacturers to ‘future proof’ new infrastructure and minimise the likelihood of expensive retrofitting. How are we going to make sure we have the infrastructure to support CAVs in rural areas?

Similarly, much of the existing research focuses on technical aspects of CAVs (vehicles themselves) rather than the human and financial factors which will affect their adoption in rural areas. What will the pattern of uptake be in rural areas? Is rural road infrastructure being taken into account in the design, development and use of CAVs? And will there be a ‘rural premium’ in the development and deployment of CAVs in the countryside?

Thirdly, how then can rural areas capitalise on Government commitment and investments in CAVs? If CAVs are going to be transformational, how can we encourage Government and companies to see rural areas as testbeds for the future of mobility and smarter transport solutions? Rural areas offer a mix of road and driving conditions not experienced in towns and cities. According to engineers at Glyndwr University, driverless vehicles have the potential to be used most effectively on “steep, narrow, slow and sinuous” roads and where there are mixed transport users (cars, agricultural vehicles, livestock, wildlife). For if Government continues to position the UK as an environment to build automotive technologies of the future – and expects driverless vehicles to bring deliver economic, social and environmental benefits – rural areas can and should be at the forefront of this commitment, providing real word testing to bring these vehicles to market. And if the applications are not only in road transport, but also in agriculture, marine and energy sectors, rural can and should be at the forefront of this move towards automation. Will we see driverless cars on the UK’s rural roads in the near-future? Watch this space…


Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. Her current work includes supporting a Lottery programme to help people into paid work; research for the NHS on rural workforce issues and evaluating a financial capability project. She can be contacted by email jessica.sellick@roseregeneration.co.uk or telephone 01522 521211. Website: http://roseregeneration.co.uk/ Blog: http://ruralwords.co.uk/ Twitter: @RoseRegen 


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