You know it’s going to be a good event when the venue is the Royal Automobile Club, Ayrton Senna’s McLaren-Honda F1 car is on display in the rotunda, and the first person you bump into is Tara Andringa, Executive Director of Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), who has flown in from America especially to attend.
We’ve interviewed Andringa a few times for Cars of the Future. First, back in 2021, when she explained PAVE’s mission to inform the US public about self-driving vehicles. We mused then about how the UK would benefit from a similar initiative, and three short years later it has come to pass.
WMG & PAVE UK
After a start amusingly punctuated by a crockery mishap, the day only got better with a succession of engaging keynotes, followed by a high calibre panel.
Opening, Prof Robin Clark, Dean of WMG at the University of Warwick, welcomed the support for PAVE UK from Ministers, the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), and Transport for West Midlands. He emphasised the importance of the P (partners) and E (education) in PAVE, before handing over to Andringa.
“Credit to the UK government for committing to AV,” she said. “We met representatives from CCAV at CES in 2020 and it was clear immediately that they were innovative and supportive – they just got it. They saw the promise of what AVs can do for society and were already thinking about how to build trust in the technology.”
In the US, PAVE has secured support from a dazzling array of partners – from academics to manufacturers to charities. It has also demonstrated that the best way to gain trust is to put people in self-driving vehicles. Seeing is believing it seems.
Hats off to Prof Sarah Sharples, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Transport (DfT), who seamlessly extended her address to the exact amount of time it takes a Minister to plough through Whitehall mid-morning gridlock.
Drawing on her Nottingham roots, she explained that the Luddites – those most famous anti-technologists – were driven by a distrust of those pushing the new weaving machinery. A valuable lesson from history.
Minister for Self-driving
Fashionably late, next up was Minister for the Future of Transport, Anthony Browne MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the DfT.
Drawing on the heritage of our salubrious surroundings, he called for a 21st century version of the 1,000 Mile Trial, organised by the Royal Automobile Club in 1900 to convince vocal sceptics of the benefits of the motor car. One of the entrants was Charles Stewart Rolls, several years before he met Frederick Henry Royce.
Recounting his personal experiences of participating in on-road self-driving trials, and going hands-free at 70mph on the M25 in a Mach-E, he set out the headline facts and figures: human error a factor in 88% of road accidents, data from Waymo in the US suggesting self-driving could be x7 safer, £600m in UK government investment, and the potential £66bn boost to the UK economy by 2040.
“Regulation to support the sector is coming to the Commons within weeks, establishing a safety threshold for AVs in law,” he said. “We are making the UK a great place to develop and deploy. The future is closer than most people think.”
It was a hard act to follow but fortunately the task fell to Prof Siddartha Khastgir, Head of Verification and Validation at WMG and a leading light in PAVE UK.
“We need to communicate safety not by dumbing down but by focusing on accuracy,” he said. “We will learn from PAVE in the US and elsewhere, but make it specific to the UK.”
There followed presentations by Daniel Quirke, Technical Policy Manager at Wayve – who detailed their UK last mile delivery trial with Asda – Chris Lane, Head of Transport Innovation at Transport for West Midlands – who highlighted the work of their Influencing Transport Lab – and Prof Natasha Merat, Chair in Human Factors of Transport Systems at the University of Leeds – who provided notable insights into the timescales for effective handover between human drivers and automated systems. More on that in a moment.
After a short break, Prof Sharples was joined by Dr Elizabeth Box, Research Director at the RAC Foundation, Dr Karl Obermair, Chairman of PAVE Europe, David Wong, Head of Technology and Innovation at the SMMT, and road safety campaigner, Meera Naran MBE.
The presence of Naran was particularly poignant – not just a huge vote of confidence in the safety credentials of self-driving (from someone who lost her young son, Dev, in a crash on a smart motorway), but also a much-needed independent voice.
“There is a big difference between what is being said and what is being understood – level 2, level 3 SAE – it means nothing to me,” she said. “There’s the difference between awareness and education, the challenge of misinformation, so many new channels of communication, like TikTok. My background is health, and we put the patient at the centre everything. In this industry, the road user should be in that position.”
Further points of interest included… a lag for handover of 3 seconds in a simulator or 6 seconds in the real world, and the fact we are, apparently, 12-15 years behind electric vehicles in terms of communicating with the public.
Contributions from the audience included a plea for PAVE to also educate on ADAS, concern regarding the focus being largely on passenger cars at the expense of freight and public transport (that one sparked an impromptu round of applause!), and the likely quality of debate about self-driving in the more depressing sections of the mass media.
Senna’s car & me
The answer to the last one, of course, is to put your faith in quality content from trusted sources. You’re welcome! After lunch, and some networking, that was almost that. Just one last job – having my picture taken with Senna’s car, which bears remarkable similarities to a certain photo from my youth.
Where will self-driving be in another 35 years, and what role will PAVE UK have played? Time will tell.