APC self-driving event 7 Dec 2022

Self-driving event report: APC Future of Technology, 7 December 2022

Share this article

Great self-driving debate despite Waymo no show

Self-driving advocates and sceptics gathered at 30 Euston Square in London last week for the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s Future of Technology event, supported by Zenzic, but someone was missing.

Keynote speaker Trent Victor, director of safety research and best practices at Waymo (formerly Google’s self-driving car project), remoted-in from Stockholm around midday and cheerily logged off immediately after his polished presentation.

He had been expected to open, and to participate in a debate on ethics and security. It was disappointing, and only strengthened the hand of transport commentator Christian Wolmar, that arch critic of driverless, who was in attendance.

Self-driving debate

Let’s focus on the positives. Host Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, seamlessly rejigged the agenda, and the other speakers – Peter Davies, technical director of Thales, Jessica Uguccioni, lead lawyer on the Law Commission’s Automated Vehicles Review, and Professor Nick Reed of Reed Mobility – delivered great presentations and high-quality debate on the question: Are self-driving vehicles still a fantasy?

APC self-driving event, Dec 2022, empty chair
APC self-driving event L-R: Gooding, Uguccioni, Davies and Reed

Cryptography expert Davies urged the audience to “get real about cyberattacks”, and to consider “which bits of the system will be made brittle” by facilitating connectivity. He referenced the worldwide grounding of Boeing 737 MAX planes as an example of the commercial danger.

Uguccioni equated the minimum safety level for self-driving cars with the need to pass a driving test, asking: “How hard should it be? What should be in it?”. She posited that human performance should be “a floor, not a ceiling” and pointed out that the risks will be different. Self-driving cars might be better at handling everyday driving tasks, but their sensors could be confused by something as seemingly innocuous as leaf fall. She then addressed the “value judgement” of whether self-driving cars should ever be allowed to break the rules, for example, to mount a pavement in order to avoid a collision.

Professor Reed addressed precisely this question in a 2021 paper emphasising the importance of a role for the public. He referenced his Rees Jeffreys Road Fund supported research into societal engagement, and his work with BSi on using digital commentary to analyse safety performance. Notably, he also called for “an industry standard on data collection”.

The panel praised the work of the CCAV in encouraging discussion, explored “the blurring of the line between ADAS and self-driving” at UN level (for example, in cases when a driver becomes incapacitated), and covered recent changes to the Highway Code.

Davies raised the possibility that a system failure could result in all self-driving vehicles coming to a stop. Imagine the disruption, the impact on essential logistics.    

Self-driving presentation

Finally, our man in Sweden appeared on the big screen, and proceeded to give a very slick talk. He nailed the core question of whether self-driving is still fantasy. It isn’t. It’s happening now. Waymo robotaxis are already operating in San Francisco and Phoenix. He signposted Waymo’s online library of documents delivering “transparency on safety”, reported that most collisions to date had been “very minor”, and showed an animation of a real-world crash in which the human was replaced by the Waymo Driver.

APC self-driving event, Dec 2022: Trent Victor of Waymo
APC self-driving event, Dec 2022: Trent Victor of Waymo

Self-driving Q&A

This raised many questions but, alas, Victor was gone, and the excellent discussion resumed without him. Reed and Uguccioni agreed on the need for a minimum data set to be shared by vehicle manufacturers (VMs), including incident location data, but Davies saw many obstacles to global standards.

The curveballs, of course, came from the audience, including from John Emanuel, of Urban MASS, and the aforementioned Wolmar. He cuttingly compared what he’d heard with the promises made by self-driving “evangelists” a few years ago – namely that “we’d all be in shared driverless cars by 2025”. Issues such as safely negotiating Holborn at 6pm were “insuperable”, he said, with two driverless cars meeting on a country lane likely to be “stuck there indefinitely”.

Reed admitted that self-driving had been over-hyped but reiterated that “this technology has the potential to shift the plateau” for road safety. He also highlighted the work of Eloy in tackling the country lane scenario.

Uguccioni applauded the self-driving industry’s “ambition to strive for reduced fatalities”, and that was a suitably realistic note on which to break for lunch.

For further info on the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s mission to accelerate the transition to a net-zero automotive industry, visit apcuk.co.uk

Share this article

Author: Neil Kennett

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