Prof Nick Reed, founder of Reed Mobility, with bike.

Prof Nick Reed on how automated vehicles can bring safer, more sustainable transport and a better society for all.

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Safety, air quality and accessibility: Professor predicts how driverless cars will change UK


Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with the founder of Reed Mobility, Professor Nick Reed.

Specialising in psychology and road safety, Professor Nick Reed is one of the UK’s leading experts on connected and automated vehicles (CAVs). His company, Reed Mobility, helps organisations and businesses in their understanding of risk and the effectiveness of mitigations for infrastructure, vehicles, drivers and road users.

What major changes do you expect in UK transport over the next 10-15 years? 

I hope we’ve moved beyond the high point of hype and will start to see the commercial deployment of automated vehicles, delivering positive impacts on safety, air quality and accessibility to transport – all the radical transformations the AV industry has been promising. Over the last few weeks, with announcements from the likes of Waymo and Cruise, there are signs this might be happening.

The issue of air quality isn’t going away. We need to accelerate decarbonisation and encourage active transport. I hear people say we need to start designing cities around people rather than cars, but I don’t think that’s quite right. We have always designed cities around people, but for a long time we’ve seen cars as the best solution for moving people – now we understand that alternatives are required to achieve sustainable mobility in urban centres. Data will be critical in changing that thinking, in understanding mobility in cities and rural areas – helping us to understand who needs to travel, how best to serve those needs, and the social, environmental, safety and economic impacts of meeting that demand.

Can you expand on the likely development of self-driving vehicles within this timeframe e.g. freight platooning, robotaxis and privately owned driverless cars?

We have converging strands of automation. The likes of Waymo and limited operational design domain (ODD), the car doing everything in restricted circumstances, and then the manufacturers of traditional privately-owned cars, including Tesla, introducing more ADAS features and increasing the level of automation.

That convergence, where automated cars can do everything everywhere, is a long way off, but over time the boundaries of the ODDs in which vehicles are capable of operating in an automated mode will expand, encompassing more roads, more traffic situations and more weather conditions.

Automation in which control shifts from human drivers to vehicle systems present a challenge and, again, data may play a critical role in resolving this issue. To have this functionality, drivers may have to accept much greater driver monitoring than is typical in cars today. There’s also the concern about how extended use of automation over time may potentially result in deskilling the driver. Cars may decide that, based on their observations of driving behaviour, the driver is not sufficiently capable to have automation! The evidence on achieving safe sharing of responsibility for driving with automation systems is mixed, to say the least.

An additional route for road automation that has a lot of promise is for the movement of goods. With no passengers on board – and fewer concerns over vehicles operating at low speed or achieving passenger comfort – companies may be more willing to launch automated freight vehicles (like Nuro). This may open up new business models for delivery services that would be impossible with human driven deliveries.

With reference to your six key perspectives (safety, environment, prosperity, productivity, technology and joy) what benefits will these vehicles bring?

Safety – it’s about tackling human error as a contributory factor in road crashes. No one is claiming that automation will solve everything, but it may start to reduce the prevalence of common factors like excess speed, intoxication and fatigue.

Environment – it’s about the whole model of transportation. If we can shift to shared, on-demand vehicles, then maybe we need fewer of them. Also, active travel might feel safer if vehicles are more predictable.

Prosperity – mobility is a key factor in success for communities and individuals. AVs might help tackle issues of equality in transport provision.

Productivity – it’s about reclaiming time. If the AV is driving you can spend time doing other things, whether that’s being more productive for work or gaining a better life balance.

Technology – most people agree that technology has brought huge benefits, but we can do better, for example, in terms of poor air quality or the number of people dying in crashes. To achieve this, we need to break out of the transport model we’ve been using for 100 years – and we may need new technologies to help us do that.

Joy – our transport systems should be a source of happiness. Let’s create environments that are aesthetically attractive. If we want our children to play in the streets we need transport that’s compatible with that, not lorries thundering past.

What are the potential downsides in the shift to self-driving and how can these be mitigated?

Of course, there’s a utopian and dystopian version of a future with automated vehicles. People often raise the issue of unemployment for professional drivers but the widescale deployment of automated vehicles is going to have a long transition period. Automation might address a shortage of drivers in the freight sector and may also create new jobs in remote vehicle monitoring and fleet maintenance. Although the transition may be long, it is something we need to be thinking about now to ensure that it is a smooth process.

There’s also a challenge coming around how we see crashes from an ethical point of view. Unfortunately, 1.3 million people die on our roads globally every year, of which there’s about 1,800 in the UK. Automation may reduce that number significantly but we need to be prepared for the discussion about fatalities caused by the actions of machines rather than human drivers.

Another concern is that models of automated vehicle deployment could further embed personal car use into society, when active travel is more sustainable. Automated vehicles have the potential to change our mobility ecosystem radically – so it’s important that we have a clear vision about how that change can bring safer, more sustainable transport and a better society for all.

For further info, including more detail on the six key perspectives, visit reed-mobility.co.uk

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Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched Carsofthefuture.co.uk in 2019.

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