In an explosive exclusive interview with Cars of the Future, transport expert Christian Wolmar presents a devastating critique of the self-driving dream.

Are driverless cars the future? Don’t believe the hype says Wolmar

As an arch critic of the UK’s autonomous vehicle plans, transport commentator Christian Wolmar sums up his views in the title of his book, Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere.

“The problems are almost too great to list, but my primary concerns are two-fold: technological and environmental,” he says. “There are huge worries about rushing into it, cutting corners which might result in accidents and deaths, as they already have.

“Then there’s a bigger issue: what is the positive outcome? I just don’t see it. People are not asking for it, it doesn’t solve problems such as congestion or pollution, yet huge amounts of money are going into it with almost no return.

“The technology can be hacked. There’s the risk of deskilling drivers with the adoption of more automated driving aids, then expecting them to take over in the event of an emergency. The more you look at the driverless vision, the more dystopian it appears.”

At this point, Wolmar casually mentions a host of other potential pitfalls concerning legality, privacy, practicality. You get the picture. He’s not a fan. Following this initial brutal attack on the foundation stones of the self-driving dream, he quickly covers off some popular retorts.

“The argument goes that driverless cars will help the blind and others who can’t drive, but logically this must mean more cars on the road and therefore more congestion,” he says. “The response is “ah, no, because there will be shared use”, but there’s no evidence that people want that. It isn’t a realistic concept, but even if we get there it will not be a good place.”

So why are governments, vehicle manufacturers and tech companies so obsessed with it? “The proponents of driverless have managed to create a climate in which the public and politicians think it is inevitable, but it isn’t,” he says.

“After 12 years of testing robotaxis in sunny climates on nice wide geofenced highways you still have to sign a nondisclosure agreement to get in one! The developers are driven by fear that someone else will make the technology work and become the market leader, but everything points to the fact that this is a technological dead end. Like Concorde, lots of great ideas have floundered.”

Finally, Wolmar relents briefly from his devastating critique. “There may be some limited uses such as airport transit,” he admits. “It’s a bit like the moon landing, some great technologies will come out of it. Indeed, if you speak to people at trade shows, a lot of them are very skeptical about driverless ever becoming a dominant technology. They already have successful businesses supplying cameras or software or lidar, and that’s where their interest lies.

“Outside of the industry, many think driverless cars are already available to buy. It is pure hype. They don’t exist. Headlines in the media claim driverless cars can do this or that, and then in paragraph five it says there’s a safety driver.

“You saw it with covid and the supposed benefits of driverless delivery. If anything, the impact of the pandemic on driverless was to completely undermine the shared use argument, which is vital to the business case. Coronavirus, and whatever comes after it, is as much a problem for shared use as it is for public transport.”

So, what’s Wolmar’s preferred solution? “The approach must be different for each town or city, but urban areas are not suitable for the unregulated use of private cars,” he says. “You have to recognise that road space is a limited asset, to do otherwise is bad economics. This is not a war on the motorist. There will be cars of the future, but cars in their proper place, particularly rural areas.”

Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere second edition (2020)

For more detailed analysis (and scathing criticism), the second edition of Wolmar’s book “Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere” is out now via London Publishing Partnership priced at £9.99. Alternatively, email christian.wolmar@gmail.com or visit www.christianwolmar.co.uk.

Opening of the Smart Mobility Living Lab in London and the Darwin SatCom Lab in Oxfordshire

UK increases driverless vehicle testing capability with new centres in London and Oxford

Last week saw the UK expand its driverless vehicle testing infrastructure with the opening of two impressive new facilities: the Smart Mobility Living Lab in London and the Darwin SatCom Lab in Oxfordshire.

On 30 September, Zenzic officially opened its Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL) with an online event featuring Paul Campion, CEO of TRL, and virtual ribbon-cutting by Danny Thorpe, leader of the council in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Described as the place to go for real-world connected and automated vehicles (CAV) and connected and automated mobility (CAM) testing, the SMLL will use public and private roads in London “to develop and validate new mobility and transport technologies in a real-world connected environment”.

The following day, O2 opened its new commercial 5G and satellite communications lab at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.

Part of Project Darwin, a four-year programme supported by O2 and the European Space Agency, it will “explore and trial next-gen connectivity solutions for connected and autonomous vehicles”.

Derek McManus, chief operating officer at O2, said: “We’re delighted to announce that the Darwin SatCom Lab is now open for business. It’s the next step in getting autonomous vehicles on the road and making the UK’s transport network greener.”

Amanda Solloway MP, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, added: “I am incredibly excited that O2’s first of its kind driverless car lab will enable our most innovative businesses to test these technologies and bring us another step closer to putting self-driving vehicles safely on our roads.”

Typical, you wait months for a significant development and two come along at once.

Space age navigation for driverless cars

In a fascinating new article, published on 18 September 2020, NASA explained how its laser-based lunar landing technology could be adopted by self-driving cars.

Facing many of the same navigational and hazard avoidance challenges, NASA brought sensors, cameras, algorithms and high-performance computers together under the Safe and Precise Landing Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE) project.

Considering Mars is approximately 34 million miles from earth, and NASA successfully landed the Curiosity rover within a 12×4 mile target area, autonomous vehicle developers would be wise to pay attention.

What’s more, NASA intends to be even more precise in future, with a new variation called Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL), which detects the movement and velocity of distant objects, as well as a spacecraft’s own motion relative to the ground.

Steve Sandford, former director at NASA’s Langley Research Center and now Chief Technology Officer at Psionic, said: “Doppler lidar’s high resolution can distinguish between objects that are only several inches apart and even at a distance of several hundred feet.” Potentially perfect for detecting, for instance, a pedestrian crossing a road.

For further info, read the original NASA article.

Should driving be outlawed in the driverless future?

Expressing a highly contentious view, Jonathan Webber, Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University, has suggested that human drivers should be banned once driverless cars are up to speed.

Writing in The Conversation, he said: “Robot drivers won’t break the speed limit, jump the lights, or park where they shouldn’t. They won’t drive under the influence of drink or drugs. They’ll never get tired or behave aggressively. They won’t be distracted by changing the music or sending a text, and they’ll never be trying to impress their mates.

“Many people enjoy driving. But many people enjoy smoking too, and this is banned in public places. There could be designated safe spaces for drivers to indulge their hobby without risk to other people.”

It is a convincing argument. He even acknowledges the importance of access, saying: “There is a strong case that essential transport infrastructure should be publicly owned. And if private cars are not an option, perhaps the cost of using autonomous taxis should be proportionate to ability to pay.

“But regardless of how we resolve these practical issues, it seems that the enormous benefits of safe, driverless taxis should lead us to remove any other kind of car from our roads.”

This strong stance puts him on a collision course with Alex Roy, the New York-based founder of the Human Driving Association (HDA).

An arch critic of fatuous and excessive claims made by self-driving proponents, eyebrows were raised when Roy wrote an article for The Drive explaining why he had accepted a position with driverless tech company Argo AI.

“I want what any sane person should want. I want tomorrow, today. I want it to be reliable. I want technology that enhances my life rather than restricts it,” he said.

“I want to own a car with a self-driving button, but I still want a steering wheel, and I want to set the first autonomous Cannonball Run record, and I want my daughter to have a driver’s license.”

To achieve this, the HDA is calling for a constitutional amendment on the right to drive your own vehicle.

As so often with the embryonic driverless car industry, there are more questions than answers: Are the two really so far apart? Do we need something like the HDA on this side of the pond?

New £8.4m CAV testing facility at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire

A new 6km testing facility for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) is being constructed at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome and Proving Ground in Leicestershire.

The development, to be known as the Cavway, is expected to cost £8.4m, including £4m of government funding.

It will feature an array of highways designed by consortium partner Applus+ IDIADA, including smart motorways, rural B roads, urban A roads and all kinds of junctions.

Dave Walton, managing director of Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, said “The site at Bruntingthorpe and the experience of the Bruntingthorpe team, together with IDIADA’s experience in designing and operating proving grounds, will allow us to develop a world class CAV facility which will attract intelligent vehicle development activities to the UK.”

The project is backed by Zenzic, previously Meridian Mobility, a joint government and industry initiative tasked with accelerating connected and driverless vehicle technologies in the UK.

UK Autodrive report highlights driverless progress and challenges

The groundbreaking UK Autodrive project has published its final report, reflecting on some impressive achievements and highlighting urgent challenges.

Back in December 2014, UK Autodrive was one of three successful consortia selected from Innovate UK’s Introducing Driverless Cars To UK Roads competition. On launch, in October 2015, it was the UK’s largest ever trial of connected and self-driving vehicles.

The rollcall of big names involved with the project included planning consultants Arup, Milton Keynes and Coventry City councils, vehicle manufacturers Jaguar Land Rover, Ford and Tata, automotive technology specialist RDM, transport systems specialist Horiba-Mira, and Oxford and Cambridge universities.

The three main elements were: 1) The Cars programme, focused on the development and trialling of connected and autonomous passenger cars; 2) The Pods programme, focused on the development and trialling of a new form of last-mile electric-powered pod vehicle; and 3) The Cities programme, aimed at helping cities to understand how they could best facilitate and benefit from automated transport systems.

JLR, Tata and RDM all praised it for significantly advancing their autonomous capabilities, with Emergency Vehicle Warning and Collaborative Parking judged to have been particularly effective. The Electronic Emergency Brake Light feature was also considered to have strong potential.

Just as importantly, the report highlighted five major challenges:

  • The levels of integration with road infrastructure, including traffic signals
  • Issues related to time synchronisation between system components
  • Extra care to be taken during testing in areas where pedestrians cross
  • The need to correct for road surface imperfections compared to 2D maps
  • The current imprecision of GPS for lane-level localisation

Tim Armitage, project director at Arup, said: “The success of the project was primarily down to the vast and varied expertise of the UK Autodrive consortium partners, and to the collaborative manner in which we worked from day one.”

You can download the full report here

Win for Wi-Fi over 5G in connected car technology race

In a controversial move, the European Commission (EC) has backed Wi-Fi-based ITS-G5 over its 5G-based rival, C-V2X, in the race to become the standard for internet connected cars.

The clincher was apparently that Wi-Fi is already widely available, but many see it as a victory for ITS-G5 supporters Volkswagen, Renault and NXP, who claim it is better for time-critical communications such as crash avoidance.

In the opposite corner, big hitters like Ford, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and Huawei back C-V2X, arguing that it can support a wider range of applications.

The US and China are both expected to endorse 5G and driverless car cybersecurity is very much in the spotlight.

According to Techradar, Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA (the trade association for mobile network operators), wrote to the European Parliament criticising Wi-Fi as old technology.

Meanwhile, Reuters quoted Lise Fuhr, director general of telecoms lobbying group ETNO, as saying: “Europe cannot mandate only one technology for connected driving. Member states can now correct this by bringing 4G and 5G back into the picture: global competitiveness and safety are at stake.”

The EC legislation still requires approval in the European Council, so the victory for Wi-Fi isn’t assured yet.

Tackling driverless car cybersecurity threats: prevention, detection and mitigation

84% of automotive professionals have concerns that their organisational cybersecurity practices are failing to keep pace with evolving technologies, according to a new report by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

This is a major worry, and something of a disappointment, given it is nearly four years since the notorious Wired video in which hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek remotely seized control of a Jeep Cherokee containing journalist Andy Greenberg:

Wired video: hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek remotely seize control of a Jeep

“Seriously, it’s fucking dangerous,” he protested as they killed the engine while he was driving on a US highway.

These days, of course, there are millions more internet enabled ‘connected cars’ potentially susceptible to such attacks.

Despite this, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) rules on cybersecurity engineering in relation to road vehicles are still “under development”.

Last year, the Cyber Security Body Of Knowledge (CyBOK) proposed a three-stage approach to tackling the issue: 1) Prevention; 2) Detection; and 3) Mitigation.

However, it warned: “Even with good techniques to prevent introduction of vulnerabilities in new code, or to detect vulnerabilities in existing code, there is bound to be a substantial amount of legacy code with vulnerabilities in active use for the foreseeable future.”

Just this month, Jaguar Land Rover suggested that fully driverless cars might need a billion lines of code, meaning a lot of scope for loopholes.

The good news is there’s a massive profit incentive for anyone coming up with a robust solution, so tech giants, vehicle manufacturers and start-ups are all on the case.

For example, the Innovate UK-funded 5StarS project brings together experts from Horiba Mira, Ricardo, Roke, Axillium and Thatcham.

Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer at Thatcham, said: “The 5StarS consortium aims to introduce a new system of star ratings for the security of autonomous cars against cyber-attacks, like Euro NCAP’s ratings for the crash safety of cars.”

UK driverless car road trials in Cambridge, London and Manchester

Following the Department for Transport’s announcement that the UK is planning advanced driverless car road trials – meaning no safety driver – here’s an update on the latest tests currently taking place in English cities.

In Bromley and Croydon, FiveAI is operating five self-driving cars day and night with safety drivers at the wheel.

The plan is to roll-out an autonomous car-sharing service, with passenger trials scheduled to begin next year.

FiveAI’s co-founder and chief executive, Stan Boland, said: “Safety and trusted partnerships are crucial to everything we do. We’ll continue to keep residents informed along the way, working closely with the London Boroughs and Transport for London.”

The company was previously part a project known as StreetWise – a consortium awarded more than £12m by the Government to develop autonomous car software.

In Cambridge, Wayve is developing a system which relies on cameras, a sat-nav and machine learning, rather than hand-coded rules.

This video shows a Wayve vehicle with a backup driver navigating complex urban streets it has never encountered before:

A Wayve vehicle with a backup driver navigating complex urban streets

The company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Alex Kendall, said: “We’ve built a system which can drive like a human, using only cameras and a sat-nav. This is only possible with end-to-end machine learning. With each piece of data we’re able to train our system to get better and better.”

This appears to fly in the face of the majority view that radar and lidar are vital connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technologies. Time will tell.

Looking ahead, Project Synergy is planning to run three autonomous, electric Westfield sports cars on public roads between Stockport Railway Station and Manchester Airport from January 2020.

Clare Cornes, intelligent mobility manager at Westfield, said: “Safety is paramount on this project.”

We certainly hope so!

Shock news: driverless cars threaten driving jobs

The impact of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) on jobs is a hot topic this week.

In Northern Ireland, a study by the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) concluded that 58% of jobs are at risk of “substantial change” due to advances in AI, robotics and other technologies.

The report highlighted a re-emergence of ‘automation anxiety’ and concerns about the future of work.

However, it also asserted that “while automation may destroy some jobs, an equal or greater number of jobs will likely be created in the aftermath.”

Nice use of “likely”.

In India, The News Minute reported on a keynote speech by the country’s Telecom Secretary, Aruna Sundararajan.

“Adoption of digital technology has proved to be a great democratiser and leveller,” she said. “But digital is also throwing up many challenges and there are no easy answers to them.

“There are various estimates about the rate at which jobs are becoming irrelevant – from 10% to a high of 70%.”

Sundararajan suggested that a universal basic income could be part of the solution.

“The idea of providing universal basic income is gaining ground because a lot of Silicon Valley leaders are pushing for it,” she said.

In the UK, research by MoneySuperMarket found that automation of driving jobs could trigger large-scale redundancies by as early as 2023.

Seán Kemple, director of sales at Close Brothers Motor Finance, noted: “The courier service industry is already anticipating huge changes, particularly for last-mile delivery, and not much further down the line the taxi industry is likely to change too.”

One reassuring point which cropped up in the University of Michigan’s Self-Driving Cars Teach-Out was the continuing need for humans in roles variously described as operators, attendants, concierges or guides.

This dovetails with a recent Opinium survey for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which found that 77% believe driverless vehicles in the UK should have someone ready to take the wheel.

Ben Lawson, vice president of mobility and project development at Enterprise Rent-A-Car UK, said: “There are many elements that will determine when driverless cars become mainstream including the technology itself, consumer attitudes, affordability and public policy.”

Something akin to the long-running argument about the need for train guards seems – to coin a phrase – likely.