The warning lights are flashing on draft guidance to drivers in driverless cars.

The AV safety case: UK motor law expert expresses “real doubts” about proposed Highway Code changes

Barrister Alex Glassbrook specialises in road transport and has written two books on UK autonomous vehicle (AV) law. An expert in the law of advanced, automated and electric vehicles, serious personal injury, motor insurance and high-value vehicle damages cases, he begins by highlighting three recent developments:

  1. The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 coming into force on 21 April 2021;
  2. The government announcement on 28 April that it isn’t yet publishing a list of AVs under Section 1 of the Act, but that it does expect to list vehicles equipped with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) as “automated”; and
  3. Also on 28 April, the publication of proposed amendments to the Highway Code related to AVs.
Alex Glassbrook
Barrister Alex Glassbrook specialises in the law of connected and autonomous vehicles.

AG: “My work overwhelmingly involves car accidents as the source of serious injury, so the AEV Act coming into force was an historic moment. Immediately though, it was clear there was something missing: the list of automated vehicles under Section 1 of the Act, which the Secretary of State is required to publish as soon as it is prepared. There was a presumption that the Act and the list would come together, but they didn’t. We have the Act but no list. In traffic light terms, we’ve gone past amber but there’s no green. What’s going on?

“That question was answered a week later with the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ publication of its paper for the Department for Transport on whether vehicles equipped with ALKS would be listed as automated. In summary, it said the list is not yet being published because we’re waiting to find out if these vehicles will get Whole Vehicle Type Approval from the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA). If that happens, then the Secretary of State does expect to list them as automated under the AEV Act.

“This has huge implications for liability because it brings into effect a new line of motor insurance. Currently, under the Road Traffic Act, the motor insurer is effectively the body that will satisfy any judgment against a liable driver, or indeed can be sued directly under the direct rights against insurers regulations.

“The new AEV Act does something very different, something particular to AVs: it makes the insurer of the vehicle directly liable. This brings two important changes. One is the direct liability, which is slightly different from the direct rights regs. Second, it attaches to the vehicle rather than the driver, which is quite a radical step.

“There are obviously practical considerations behind this. Would publishing the list before the vehicles get Type Approval be putting the cart before the horse? Even so, it’s a little bit curious because the Act has already come into effect. Moreover, it’s not yet certain that ALKS-equipped vehicles will be classed as automated. The Secretary of State could change his mind.

“Running alongside this, we have the proposed amendments to the Highway Code. They’re quite eye-catching. The current Highway Code reiterates the orthodoxy, that the driver must at all times be in control of the vehicle and must understand the manufacturer’s instructions. The new proposed version is currently out for consultation, but the consultation period is very short, with a deadline of 28 May.

Proposed amendments to the Highway Code re AVs 2021
Proposed amendments to the Highway Code published on 28 April 2021.

“The key section reads: “On the basis of responses to the call for evidence, and the step-change that the expected introduction of the first legally recognised automated vehicles represents, we have decided to make a more ambitious amendment to The Highway Code, coinciding with the code’s 90th year anniversary.” To me, the fact it is 90 years since the Highway Code was first published in 1931 is neither here nor there. What is notable is the reference to “more ambitious”, because that implies there was an earlier draft.

“The next sentence has the wow factor. It says: “Automated vehicles no longer require the driver to pay attention to the vehicle or the road when in automated mode, except to resume control in response to a transition demand in a timely manner.” The implications of those words are immense.

“The document continues: “Automated vehicles are vehicles that are listed by the Secretary of State for Transport. While an automated vehicle is driving itself, you are not responsible for how it drives, and you do not need to pay attention to the road.”

“Well, we don’t have that list yet, and what follows is really quite striking. It proposes an instruction in the Highway Code, the official guidance to drivers, to do nothing – to pay no attention to how the vehicle is driving or what’s happening on the road. It positively advises drivers to switch off their attention.

“The next paragraph sets some parameters: “If the vehicle is designed to require you to resume driving after being prompted to, while the vehicle is driving itself, you MUST remain in a position to be able to take control. For example, you should not move out of the driving seat.”

“So, you shouldn’t get out of the driving seat – that’s quite a low standard. This appears to be saying it’s fine to watch a movie, it’s fine to go on Instagram, it’s fine to read and respond to business emails. All these tasks are entirely absorbing of concentration and require some disengaging from.

“I’ve done a lot of trials in which I’ve asked witnesses about their appreciation of time during a crash and heard expert evidence about what can happen within a short window of time. Particularly when you’ve got three or four lanes of motorway, multiple vehicles, an awful lot can happen in 10 seconds.

“There are two fairly well-known exceptions to driver control recognised in the law. One is a medical emergency, if a driver is suddenly incapacitated. The other is moments of peril, sometimes known as agony of the moment – when it is such a difficult situation that a driver causing injury by their evasive manoeuvre is not to be judged by the usual demanding standard.

“So, the common law has formed exceptions to liability, but in this case it’s more complex. First, it introduces, for want of a better phrase, artificial intelligence (AI) into the picture. Adjudicating the actions of AI is still a very undeveloped area of law. Second, it brings into the picture something that has been manufactured, namely a computer and sensor system within a moving vehicle. Again, the laws of product liability are at a very early stage of development in relation to AI and new technologies. A notorious example of that is over-the-air (OTA) software, which is not understood as goods.

“From a legal perspective, it is vitally important not to have guidance which leaves open very obvious questions. Unfortunately, these proposed changes to the Highway Code do just that. On the one hand, the Highway Code might say it’s perfectly fine to completely distract yourself from driving. But on the other hand, it’s not okay to do things like climbing out of the driving seat. That leaves open a very broad set of situations and the courts are going to find themselves dealing with some very difficult problems.

“Of course, what the court has to deal with is very much secondary, the primary question must be: what is safe? There are plenty of lessons in the history of motor vehicles when innovation has overreached. Famously, Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe At Any Speed (published in the USA in 1965), highlighted rear suspension which lost traction when going round corners. That changed product liability law across all sectors.

“I’m not a road traffic engineer but, as an observer of many road traffic accident cases over many years, I have real doubts as to the safety of this guidance.”

Alex’s new book, Advanced, Automated and Electric Vehicle Law is coming soon.

“We will be running autonomous buses this year. That’s an incredible milestone.”

The future is here, 2021: CAVForth buses will put UK on the driverless map

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing.

As a partner in the ambitious CAVForth project, predicted by the Scottish Mail on Sunday to make Edinburgh “the most ‘driverless’ city in the world”, Fusion Processing is delivering on its promise to design and build world leading systems for the automation of vehicles. Here, CEO Jim Hutchinson talks ADAS, cyclist detection and autonomous vehicle safety, explaining how CAVForth is set to make a major mark on the global self-driving map.

Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing
Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing

Please can you outline Fusion Processing’s work on connected and automated mobility?

JH: “We’ve been going since 2012. We set up to develop automated vehicle systems with the ultimate goal of being fully autonomous – able to do anything that a human-driven vehicle can. We knew from the start there were a lot of steps along the way and, for essentially a commercial company, we needed to have products along those steps rather than trying for a ‘Level 5 or nothing’ approach.

“We developed the CAVstar platform as a scalable solution – a drive system we could put into pretty much any vehicle, from small cars up to HGV. Along the way we’ve been involved in some great schemes like the Venturer project, one of the original three UK AV projects.

“Then, more or less in parallel with that, we were involved in the Gateway project in London. We provided the autonomous drive system for the pods that drove along the Thames path. That was a big trial with random members of the public – some who came along specifically to experience it, and many others who just wanted to get from the O2 to the other end of the route. The pods encountered various other people on the route – the vehicles had to be mindful of dog walkers and cyclists. The feedback was by and large very positive, and it was a good proof point for us of how our system can be used off-highway.

“It also led to other things, notably our partnerships with Stagecoach and Alexander Dennis. First-off we were exploring using autonomy in bus depots. Every night a lot of operations have to happen involving the movement of vehicles – they have to be fuelled, washed, made ready for the morning, so we put together a system which could automate that. The concept was based on a fleet manager directing all this from a control tower once the bus arrives back at the depot.

“The system proved very successful, demonstrating operating efficiency and improved safety for those working in the depot, so that led to CAVForth – an autonomous bus service. Again, we’re working with Stagecoach and Alexander Dennis, joined by Transport Scotland, Bristol Robotics Laboratory and Napier University.

Fusion Processing CAVstar
Fusion Processing’s CAVstar

“The intent is to put into service a number of Level 4 autonomous buses between the Fife Park & Ride and the Hermiston Gait Interchange. It’s a commuter route so we’re expecting a large number of daily commuters who want to travel to the Hermiston Gait Interchange, where they can transfer on to trams for the city centre, the airport or the rail network. We expect tourists will want to use it too to reach the Forth Road Bridge, a UNESCO heritage site.

“It’s a useful service, running every day of the week, and the hope is that it will go from a pilot service to a full service. It’s being registered as a new route, providing a service that wasn’t previously there, and Stagecoach anticipate around 10,000 journeys a week.

“The route includes a mix of road environments – motorway, bus lanes, roundabouts, signalled interchanges – so from our point of view it makes for a great demonstration of capability. There’s the technology side, which Fusion is focussed on, but there’s also key research around public acceptance and uptake. That’s really exciting too.

“The launch date isn’t set in stone due to Covid uncertainties, and the point at which they start taking passengers is still to be determined, but we will be running autonomous buses this year. That’s an incredible milestone, absolutely huge. It will be a very significant achievement to demonstrate a Level 4 capability on that class of vehicle – a big thing for the UK which will be noticed around the world.

“There are one or two other groups working on similar projects, but I haven’t seen anything with this level of ambition, this level of complexity, or length of route. It’ll obviously be fantastic for us and our CAVForth partners, but also for the UK autonomous vehicle industry as a whole. It will really put us on the worldwide map.”

Please can you outline Fusion Processing’s work on driver assistance?

JH: “CycleEye is an important product for us. We identified a need for collision avoidance technology. There are lots of collisions with cyclists and quite often they occur because the bus driver doesn’t know the cyclist is there. CycleEye is like a subsystem of CAVstar in a lot of ways – one of those steps to get some proof points on bits of the technology. It recognises and classifies different types of vehicle, and the driver gets an alert when there’s a cyclist in the danger zone. It is currently being used in a few cities around the UK, including on the Bristol Metrobus. It’s a good system. Whenever it has been evaluated against other cyclist detection systems it has always come out on top.

“We’re particularly excited about the next incarnation of CycleEye, evolving it to become a camera mirror system. It’s legal now to use cameras instead of mirrors, so we can provide that functionality too – monitors in the driver’s cab instead of mirrors. That has several benefits. Mirrors, on buses particularly, can be a bit of a liability – they quite often get knocked and sometimes they knock people. They stick out and head strikes are unfortunately quite common. They also get smashed, putting the bus out of service, which is an inconvenience and an operational cost. We think that being able to offer this camera mirror with CycleEye functionality is going to prove attractive to a lot of operators.”

Van with Fusion Processing technology
Van with Fusion Processing technology

Over what timescale do you expect Level 4 and 5 autonomy to be achieved in the UK and which sectors will be early adopters?

JH: “With CAVForth we’ll be running Level 4 autonomous vehicles, where you’ve got a restricted operational design domain (ODD), in the UK this year. Restricting these vehicles to particular routes or environments lends itself very well to public service, where the vehicles are maintained by an operator. That’s very achievable right now. As well as passenger service vehicles, other service vehicle fleets are easy wins, as well as off-highway stuff like industrial sites. Then you’ve got delivery vehicles.

“When it comes to true Level 5 – go anywhere, do anything vehicles – repair and maintenance is an issue. We know that with privately owned cars, some people maintain them exactly as they should, and other people don’t. There are other complications too – things that people perhaps don’t do that often but like their vehicles to be able to do, like parking in a farmer’s field at a festival – that’s a little bit further out still.

“If you just roll back slightly from true Level 5, if people want a city car or a comfortable car for a long motorway journey, nothing off-road, there’s a case for vehicles which have an autonomous mode. That certainly appeals to me.”

Can you address the concerns about ADAS, particularly handover of control, driver concentration levels and driver deskilling?

JH: “I’m not a big fan of Level 3. If you haven’t been driving for an hour to suddenly be asked to take the wheel because the car has encountered something it can’t handle, it’s just unrealistic. Whereas a Level 4 system, which can put itself into a safe state when it reaches the limits of its ODD – perhaps ready to be restarted in a manual mode when the driver wants to take control – that’s much more practical.

“If there are circumstances when the driver needs to take over then clearly the driver needs to be of a standard that they can drive safely. Once you have widespread adoption of autonomous systems, and people are not driving routinely, there is a risk of driver deskilling. If that were the case you’d really need to look at greater regulation of drivers.

“That said, you can sometime envisage problems that don’t really transpire. We’ve had cruise control and adaptive cruise control for a while now and I don’t think they’ve had the effect of particularly deskilling drivers. So, with Lane Keep, maybe it’s not such a big deal. Once you get to the point where cars are properly self-driving, there is a danger. If you haven’t got anything to do your mind will wander, that’s human nature, so it is a concern.”

For further info, visit fusionproc.com

AI and IoT expert Karim Jaser presents a resolute defence of the trolley problem.

Ethics in self-driving: The trolley problem strikes back

The trolley problem – the question of who to save, or kill, in no-win crash situations – continues to divide opinion like no other subject in the driverless world.

I must admit to flip-flopping on it myself. From being quite taken with it in 2018’s Autonomous now: the shift to self-driving, through 2019’s The driverless dilemma: touchstone or red herring?, to last month’s Self-driving experts across the world agree: the trolley problem is a nonsense.

That, I thought, was conclusion reached, the end of the matter. Far from it! In response to the latter article, Karim Jaser, Senior Product Manager specialising in artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) for blue chip companies, posted a resolute defence of the much-maligned thought experiment on our LinkedIn page.

“I do agree that humans don’t go through the trolley problem evaluation in the split decision second, however I also think not all experts agree it is a nonsense,” he said. “It is for society as a whole to discuss these ethical problems. From the point of view of self-driving technology, this can be solved in many ways, with probability theory and estimations on minimal loss, but it is not up to developers or self-driving experts alone to decide how to tackle the point. It needs the involvement of regulators, governments and the industry.”

Karim Jaser
Karim Jaser, Senior Product Manager specialising in AI and IoT.

Well, with our mission to encourage debate about all aspects of autonomous vehicles, how could we resist? We asked Karim if he’d be up for an interview. He kindly agreed and here we present his thoughtful and cohesive opinion.

KJ: “I was always fascinated by robot intelligence, so at university I studied telecommunication engineering. There were lots of exams on probability theory, system control, software engineering. I was also involved in coding in my spare time, and later did it as a job.

“Self-driving is a control problem first and foremost. There are elements of robotics, including perception state estimation and trajectory planning, but also software, hardware and AI working together.

“The interest grew stronger when I started studying machine learning and AI about four years ago. When I was at university in the 90s, AI was not really a popular subject. It was a topic I picked up later in my career. As a senior product manager at a high technology company, AI is everywhere now – it’s an essential part of the skills necessary to perform and innovate, from biometric scans and image recognition to automated travel.

“AI has a lot of potential to have a beneficial impact on society – fewer accidents, better mobility, less pollution, more autonomy for people with disabilities – but it doesn’t come without challenges, for example, cyber threats, and also ethical and regulatory issues, which is why I got involved on the trolley problem.”

“It’s not straightforward. If we take a step back, you we need to understand how self-driving cars take decisions. They’re using supervised learning, reinforcement learning, convolutional neural networks (CNN) and recurrent neural networks (RNN), deep learning for computer vision and prediction. Specifically, reinforcement and inverse reinforcement learning are very tightly linked to the way driverless vehicles behave through means of policies.

“Policies are related to the distribution of probabilities, but the trolley problem is an ethical choice, so I understand why a lot of people in the industry dismiss it. It’s not the way autonomous vehicles take decisions, going through philosophical considerations in a split second, so it might seem irrelevant, right? Like the Turing Test and Asimov’s Robot Rules, the trolley problem can be perceived as a distraction from more practical considerations.

“It can be distracting for two reasons: first, these considerations are corner cases – there are other priorities, more likely scenarios still to be addressed; second, autonomous vehicles will not be given ethical guidelines to link with probabilities.

“With regards to the first objection, as Patrick Lin (director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University) has pointed out, it shouldn’t matter if these scenarios are impossible, because the job of these thought experiments is to force us to think more carefully about ethical priorities, not to simulate the realities.

“The second objection is related to self-driving cars taking decisions through distribution of probabilities. The actions of these vehicles are linked not to hard coding, but all statistical contextual information, and that makes each scenario difficult to interpret. You can potentially have millions of mini trolley problems in different contexts.

“The trolley problem is a reminder that corner cases and autonomous vehicle behaviours are not a technical irrelevance. This is an issue that belongs to society and should be discussed in the same way as other AI pitfalls like privacy and bias.

“Actually, the trolley problem is more related to the third pitfall of AI, replicability. When trying to understand why and how an autonomous vehicle takes a decision, it is important to note that most autonomous vehicle developers are taking ethical considerations into account.

“In 2017 in America, Apple commended the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for including ethical considerations in its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. It even highlighted three particular areas: 1) the implications of algorithmic decisions for the safety, mobility and legality of automated vehicles and their occupants; 2) the challenge of ensuring privacy and security in the design of automated vehicles; and 3) the impact of automated vehicles on the public good, including their consequences for employment and public spaces.

“The automotive industry has also approached the issue of accidents caused by autonomous vehicles in relation to ethics. For example, Volvo stated in 2015 that it would take responsibility for all Volvo self-driving car accidents. This is an ethical decision, because it did so without regulation forcing it to do so.

“We will see what happens. If there are no ethical decisions by the industry, the regulators will step in. On a fun note, looking to the past, horses were not considered responsible for their actions, the rider was. Whereas in this case, responsibility for the autonomous vehicle will lie not with the owner but with the carmaker.

“So, to conclude, automakers and AV developers are taking ethical and regulatory matters into account, which underlines the importance of these discussions. We cannot just dismiss the trolley problem because it’s not the way an autonomous vehicle decides, or because it distracts from technical development.

“The way to deal with this is to discuss the implications in the right context, being aware of how autonomous vehicles are developed without scaring the public with sensationalist articles. The trolley problem might be perceived as a Terminator-style situation, and that’s where it gets on the nerves of a lot of people that are developing and testing AI. It’s not black and white, it’s a grey area, and that takes us to the path of discussions.

“The trolley problem forces us to consider ethics in vehicle development and confront the fact that ethical principles differ around the world, as documented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) simulation.

“Are we at the point where discussing the trolley problem should be a priority? I believe that would be beneficial to the success of the self-driving industry, guiding us in the thinking process of building the right mix of safeguards and transparency.”

The UK’s National Physical Laboratory is working on a framework for virtual sensor testing.

Developing test frameworks which build a bridge of trust to driverless cars in the UK

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with Andre Burgess, digital sector strategy leader at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

NPL is the UK’s National Metrology Institute, responsible for developing and maintaining the national primary measurement standards. For over a century, it has worked to translate scientific expertise into economic prosperity, skilled employment and improved quality of life, covering everything from cancer treatments to quantum computing. In the self-driving sector, Andre Burgess’s focus is test frameworks to support the deployment of safe and reliable autonomous transport on land, sea and air.

Andre Burgess, digital sector strategy leader at NPL
Andre Burgess, digital sector strategy leader at NPL.

AB: “We’re all about measurement and how it can be applied to the autonomous vehicle space. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning represents a great transformation. Whereas in the past we’ve developed tests for whether a human is fit to do something, in this new world we need a new set of tests to assure autonomous systems and build a bridge of trust. This is not a one-off test, it is ongoing work to develop new methodologies and support the development of new standards.

“One of the key things this country has developed is Testbed UK, a collaboration between government and industry which has delivered a formidable testing environment – a network of safe, highly controlled environments increasingly linked to virtual testing.

“Working with the Met Office on behalf of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) over the last year we have focused on the usability and reliability of sensors in different weather conditions. How do you know if sensors are performing well? How do you validate the decision making? How do you apply metrics and KPIs to this? Having undertaken a proof of concept for a testing framework, we are confident this can be delivered and deployed throughout the industry.

“There is much talk about pass/fail tests but our focus is confidence, improving confidence in the outputs and building confidence in the system. We collaborate across the board, with regulators, testers, developers – engaging with them to understand their requirements.  Our approach is to provide tools which help reduce the barriers to innovation without compromising regulation and safety assurance.  Striking the right balance between reliability and usability is key. Our work will support validation and help the UK to influence international standards.

“The biggest transformation in road transport over the next decade will be emissions reduction and self-driving vehicles and smart mobility systems will be key drivers. It will require changes to infrastructure and changes in habits – batteries or hydrogen will be critical, perhaps a need to drive more slowly, maybe less private car ownership. The impact of Covid has led to a move away from trains and buses, so a resurgence of public transport is vital.

“In terms of self-driving, I envisage there will be personally driven vehicles and on-demand vehicles. Increasingly I expect we’ll see a transition into smaller public transport vehicles, perhaps for 8-10 people, in continuous use. There’s real value in getting to places that don’t have bus stops and there’ll be benefits from autonomous safety features too. It won’t be everywhere but I hope within 10 years there’ll be good examples of that in the UK. The question is will we be ahead or behind the curve? In some more authoritarian countries implementation might be faster but maybe not better.

“We’ll also start to see autonomous low level aviation and autonomous shipping, for example, short cargo sea freight. Combined, these things will make roads less congested. Key transport stakeholders have expressed the need to integrate, to pursue the most efficient way to get goods into and around the UK.

“For our part, we are focused on the framework for virtual sensor testing, and also integration between virtual and physical testing. To give an accurate level of confidence requires understanding the common metrics and the areas of uncertainty. The human factor is so important, for example, what about the people with cars that don’t have this tech – how do they respond?”

For further info visit www.npl.co.uk.

Autonomous vehicle software specialist set to become a major UK success story.

Oxbotica secures huge BP investment and targets anything that moves people or goods

Oxford University spin-out, Oxbotica, has been on our must-speak-to list for a while, and on Friday we got some Zoom time with the top people – CEO, Ozgur Tohumcu, and co-founder and CTO, Professor Paul Newman.

It’s three weeks since the autonomous vehicle software specialist announced a US$47m Series B investment led by bp ventures. Yes, that BP. The press release asserts that this will accelerate the deployment of Oxbotica’s platform “across multiple industries and key markets”, but Prof. Newman is quick to emphasise this is not about robotaxis, not even about cars.

Prof Paul Newman, Oxbotica co-founder and CTO.
Prof Paul Newman, Oxbotica co-founder and CTO.

“We’ve been deploying our software in industrial settings – mines, airports – for six years now, and not only in the UK, in Europe, North America, Australia,” he says. “Everyone talks about cars but all vehicles are game for us – anything that requires moving people or goods. That’s the advantage of being pure software.

“We’re a global business and raising this kind of money during a pandemic speaks volumes. We have clear water behind and blue sky ahead. Having these new investors and strategic partners will really allow us to drive home the opportunities that came last year. Vehicles are common but software of our standard is not. We’re showing that great IP can be generated everywhere, not just Silicon Valley, and that’s very refreshing.”

While Prof. Newman focuses on the vision, Tohumcu provides the detail. “Since the funding announcement, the exchange rate means it’s actually worth closer to $50m, so that’s not bad,” he says. “We’ve just conducted a review of the business and it was pleasing to see that we achieved exactly what we said we’d do two years ago – delivering results against measurable goals.

Ozgur Tohumcu, Oxbotica CEO.
Ozgur Tohumcu, Oxbotica CEO.

“We’ve done a lot of planning recently – some well-defined, other things we’re still making choices about. We’ve been approached by new companies interested in using our tech and there are exciting deals in the pipeline, deals that come with investment. We’ll be making further announcements over the coming weeks and months.”

Make no mistake, Oxbotica is set to become a major UK success story… just don’t mention driverless cars!

UK government sparks global business sharing transport sector data.

Sharing data collected by connected cars

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with Mika Rasinkangas, founder and President of Chordant.

Originally part of the global wireless and internet of things (IoT) research company, InterDigital, Chordant was spun out as a separate business in 2019, as “a dynamic data sharing expert”. The spark was a UK government initiative to test the hypothesis that regional transportation data has tremendous value, especially when shared between different parties. The results of this two-year public-private partnership were startling.

Please can you outline your work on connected and automated mobility?

MR: “First of all we looked at the mobility space. There’s the segment that maintains the road network and their supply chain, the mobility service providers – bus companies, train operators and new entrants such as Uber – then the whole automotive sector, OEMs and their supply chain partners. We sit right in the middle of all this and our role is data exchange – bringing dynamic data sets from different sources to come up with something different that solves problems with data driven solutions.

“The hypothesis was that a lot of data in the transport segment was either underutilised, in really small silos, or not utilised at all. The idea was to work with different entities – organisations, companies and universities – to bring data together and make it more widely available, leading to innovation and efficiency.

“It was obvious from early on that this was not only a technical issue, there was a human element. Data is controlled by different entities and departments so the challenge was to get these different data owners comfortable with the idea that their data could be used for other purposes, and to get consumers comfortable with it too. The result was more usable and more reliable dynamic data.”

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

MR: “Last mile transport, micromobility solutions are ballooning and Covid19 will only accelerate this. People are walking, scootering and biking more, making short trips by means which don’t involve public transport or being in close contact to others.

“In terms of automotive, we’re living through a massive change in how people perceive the need to own a car, and this shift in perception is changing the fundamental business models. Autonomous vehicle technology keeps developing, connected vehicles are everywhere already and electric cars represent an ever bigger proportion of the vehicle population. In all these segments data utilisation will continue to increase. New cars collect huge amounts of data for lots of purposes and this can be used for lots of things other than what it was originally collected for.”

Can you address the data privacy concerns surrounding connected cars?

MR: “Data privacy is a multifaceted topic. On the one hand, Europe has been at the forefront of it with GDPR. That puts businesses operating in Europe on a level playing field. In terms of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), these regulations set limitations on what data can be harvested and what has to be anonymised in order for someone to use it. It fits the norms of today’s society, but you can see in social media that this kind of privacy seems less important to younger people, however perspectives vary greatly and companies need to be transparent in usage of people’s data.

“From a business perspective, we have to take privacy extremely seriously. The explosion of data usage can have unintended consequences but by and large the regulatory environment works quite reasonably.

“We typically deal with conservative entities which put privacy and security in the middle of everything – if there’s any uncertainty it’s better to not do it, is the attitude. Think of all the sensitive personal data that entities like car companies and mobile telephone companies have. It can give an extremely accurate picture of peoples’ behaviour. There are well established procedures to anonymise data so customers can be comfortable that their personal data cannot be identified.”

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

MR: “One could talk about a lot of different challenges. What about the latency in connectivity in order to ensure processing takes place fast enough? There’s a gazillion of things, but to me these are technical nuts that will be cracked, if they haven’t been already. One of the biggest challenges is the interaction between human-controlled vehicles and automated vehicles. When you add in different levels of driver assistance, urban and rural, different weather conditions – all sorts of combinations can happen.

“The UK is at the forefront of CAV testing. There are government sponsored testbeds and companies are running trials on open roads, so the automotive industry can test in real-life environments. We cannot simulate everything, and the unpredictability of interactions is one of the biggest challenges. A traffic planner once told me that in his nightmares he sees a driverless car heading toward a granddad in a pick-up truck, because there’s just no telling how he might react!”

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

MR: “I’d like to address the explosion of data usage in mobility and how dynamic data enables not only efficiency improvements but new business models. According to recent studies by companies like Inrix, congestion costs each American nearly 100 hours or $1,400 a year. Leveraging data-driven insights can drive change in both public policies and behaviours. In turn, these can result in reduced emissions, improved air quality and fewer pollution-caused illnesses.

“CAVs can be data sources providing tons of insight. Think about potholes – new vehicles with all these cameras and sensors can report them and have them fixed much more efficiently. This is just one example of entirely data-driven efficiency, much better than eyeballing and human reporting. There will be a multitude of fascinating uses.

“Organisations such as vehicle OEMs, transport authorities and insurance providers will require facilities for the secure and reliable sharing of data, and that’s where we come in. I would urge anyone interested in data driven solutions in the mobility space to visit chordant.io or our Convex service site at convexglobal.io.”

Prof John McDermid says the trolley problem is a nonsense, requiring self-driving vehicles to make distinctions that you or I could not.

Why assuring machine learning is crucial to self-driving

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with Professor John McDermid OBE FREng, Director of the Assuring Autonomy International Programme at the University of York.

Professor John McDermid has been Director of the Assuring Autonomy International Programme, a partnership between Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the University of York, since 2018. He advises government and industry on safety and software standards, including Five and the Ministry of Defence, and was awarded an OBE in 2010. The author of 400 published papers, his 2019 article, Self-driving cars: why we can’t expect them to be ‘moral’, was highly critical of the oft-quoted trolley problem in relation to driverless vehicles.

Professor John McDermid, University of York
Professor John McDermid, University of York

PJM: “I’ve been at York for 30 years working on the safety of complex computer-controlled systems. What you define as complex changes all the time. In January 2018 we started a new programme, looking at the assurance of robots and autonomous systems, including automated mobility, but also robots in factories, healthcare and mining.

“It’s important to demonstrate the safety and security of novel technologies like machine learning, but there’s often a trade-off involved, because you can make things so secure they become unusable. If I open my car with the remote key I have a couple of minutes before it automatically locks again, and there’s a small possibility that someone could get their finger trapped if they try to open the door just as it automatically re-locks. We encounter these types of trade-offs all the time.”

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

PJM: “Over the next decade we will get to Level4 autonomous driving, so in defined parts of the road network cars will drive themselves. We will solve the safety problems of that technology, but I’d be surprised if it is within five years. Despite the rhetoric, Tesla’s approach is not on track for safe autonomous driving within the year.

“At the same time, there will be a trend towards Mobility as a Service (MAAS). I love my car, but I’ve had it for 18 months and have only driven 7,000 miles. I sometimes ask myself why I have this expensive piece of machinery. A recent study showed that the average car in the UK is only used for 53 minutes a day. Mostly, they sit doing nothing, which, considering the huge environmental impact of manufacturing all these vehicles, is very wasteful.

“If I could call upon a reliable autonomous vehicle and be 99% certain that it would arrive in a timely manner, say within five minutes, I’d probably give up my car. It should also be noted that the two trends go hand-in-hand. Having Level4 is critical to achieving MAAS, delivering all the convenience of having your own car without any of the hassle.”

Can you address some of the data privacy concerns surrounding connected cars?

PJM: “We are back to this issue of trade-offs again. I want my MAAS so I’ve called it up and given the service provider some information about where I am. If they delete that information after I’ve paid then I’m prepared to accept that. What if the company wants to keep the information but won’t allow access except for law enforcement – would that be acceptable to the public? What can government agencies require this company to do?

“Another example: What if your 10-year-old daughter needs MAAS to take her to school? A reasonable concerned parent should be able to track that. What if the parents are divorced, can they both access that data? There’s clearly a privacy issue and there needs to be a legislative framework, but it’s a balance. For the purposes of getting from A to B, most people would accept it, so long as their data is normally kept private.”

Can you address concerns about the trolley problem in relation to self-driving cars?

PJM: “My basic feeling is that the trolley problem is a nonsense, a distraction. All these elaborate versions require self-driving vehicles to make distinctions that you or I could not.

“The big Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study sets a higher standard for autonomous vehicles than any human can manage. Who do you save, a child or an older person? The child because they can be expected to live longer and benefit more. However, this is based on false assumptions. I don’t believe in the split second of a crash you go into that sort of thought process – you focus on controlling the vehicle and in most cases the best option is to (try to) stop.

“I don’t know why people find the trolley problem so compelling, why they waste so much energy on it. I really wish it would go away. Fortunately, most people seem to be coming to that conclusion, although one of our philosophy lecturers strongly disagrees with me.”

Which sectors do you think will adopt self-driving first?

PJM: “Farming applications might come first as they are short of people in agriculture and the problems are simpler to overcome. If you geofence a field where you wish to use a combine harvester and equip it with technology so it doesn’t run over a dog lying asleep in the field – there’s already tech which is getting quite close to that – then that’s an attractive solution.

“Last mile freight via small delivery robots (like Nuro in the US and Starship here in the UK) might also come quickly, but longer distance freight will probably require a segregated lane. Even last mile robots come with risks, like people tripping over them.

“There’s a lot of commercial desire for robotaxis, and this is potentially a very big market. There are already genuine driverless taxis in the US now, but they have a much simpler road structure than here in the UK.

“The crucial technical bit is finding accepted ways of assuring the machine learning. I would say that, I work on it, but without that regulators and insurers won’t allow it.”

For further info, visit www.york.ac.uk/assuring-autonomy

Creative technologist Ushigome on future vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) communications.

Self-driving news flash: flickering lights to replace eye contact in facilitating trust

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with Yosuke Ushigome, Director at design innovation studio Takram.

Listing his primary interest as “emerging technologies”, London-based creative technologist, Yosuke Ushigome, has been working with Toyota on future car concepts for over 10 years. Here, he gives his thoughts on the key issues in driverless car design.

Yosuke Ushigome, director Takram
Yosuke Ushigome, director Takram

YU: “We come from a user experience (UX) background and over the years our projects with Toyota have got bigger and higher level. In 2018, with the e-Palette concept, we started taking a more holistic approach to mobility and automation – an on-the-ground people perspective on the entire system, rather than the UX of an interior, exterior or service.

“There’s going to be a trend in transparency and trust. How can designers help the systems, passengers, pedestrians and others to communicate? In the past, this has usually been based around the driver and passenger, but that’s got to expand. In cars of the future, pedestrians will not be able to look into the driver’s eyes – what’s driving might not even be on the car, it might be in the cloud.

“How can you communicate interactions that facilitate trust? That’s really interesting. People pick things up from little movements in their peripheral vision, so you come back to old school ideas like patterns of flickering lights. How fast it flashes, or flashing from left to right, could give people a little nudge, maybe help them to detect danger. This kind of experimentation will definitely increase.

“Level5 autonomy seems to me to be very far off. Level4, in areas where the road system is designed for self-driving, or on private roads where there’s more separation between vehicles and pedestrians, is coming rapidly – things like deliveries between factories. Starship delivery robots are already deployed in Milton Keynes and economics will drive adoption, especially with the pandemic.

“I would like to be part of this transformation, so long as it is inclusive. There’s an opportunity to meet the needs of people left behind by our existing transport, whether that’s physical disability or economic disadvantage.”

Toyota e-Palette concept, via Takram
Toyota e-Palette concept, via Takram

Toyota had planned to showcase its e-Palette mobility solution at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, so hopefully we’ll get to see it next summer.

For further info, visit Takram.com.

Vivacity Labs founder backs the citizen first vision of 21st century privacy.

Time for a grown-up conversation about cameras, AI, traffic flow and privacy

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with the founder of Vivacity Labs, Mark Nicholson.

Vivacity uses sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide “up-to-the-minute data on urban movement”, helping local councils to promote active travel, improve safety and reduce congestion. Big Brother you say? Well, it’s 2020 not 1984 and CEO Mark Nicholson is very happy to have that debate.

MN: “As the transport network becomes more complicated, local authorities need more powerful tools. Tech giants have invaded the ecosystem, and when you’re dealing with Uber and driverless cars, sending someone out with a clipboard just isn’t going to cut it. We bring new technology which tells them about their transport, so they can adapt and gain control over the ecosystem.

“We started with sensors and then video-based sensors, generating huge data sets and better quality data. We’ve looked at everything from cyclists undertaking to lockdown journey times and asked: how can we use this data to make the road system more efficient? The next phase is autonomous vehicles, because that ecosystem needs to work with both infrastructure and other road users.

“Privacy is not just a key issue in self-driving but in the whole smart city. There are basically two visions – the Chinese and the European. The Chinese vision is very invasive, it’s 1984 and that’s the point. The alternative is the European vision, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). For a while it looked like there might be a third, a corporate American vision. Google were running a smart city project in Canada, but it didn’t work out so we’re back to two models.”

If you don’t know about the Quayside project in Toronto, a much-shared Guardian article from 2019 warned of surveillance capitalism, data harvesting and the possibility that algorithms could be used to nudge behaviour in ways that favour certain businesses. You can read it here or, er, Google it.

MN: “We’re very much on the European, privacy-centric, citizen first side – an ecosystem that gives the benefits of mass data without the costs to privacy. All our data is anonymised at source, everything. Each camera or sensor unit has its own processor on board which uses AI to extract information, for example, what are the road users? The imagery is discarded within a few milliseconds, all we keep is the data. We recently looked at how socially distanced people were in Kent and, although no personal data was collected, it caused a bit of controversy.”

It did indeed. “Big Brother is watching your social distancing: Fury as traffic flow cameras are secretly switched to monitor millions of pedestrians in government-backed Covid project”, screamed the headline in the Daily Mail. We’d better get back to self-driving.

MN: “Over the last couple of years the hype around driverless cars has died down. There’s been a recognition that autonomous vehicles are not as close as Elon Musk promised. The technology is progressing though. They can drive quite well on motorways and in quiet areas, but in busy, congested areas they struggle.

“What would happen if you rolled out driverless cars today? My suspicion is they would probably perform to about the same level as human drivers. The question is: Are we happy with systemic risk rather than personal risk? Can we engineer out that risk? Can we make the infrastructure intelligent enough so it works with vehicles in even the most challenging situations?

“The best way to end the no-win scenario is to have enough data to dodge it. Most of these incidents come about due to an unforeseen element, such as a pedestrian stepping out, a cyclist skipping a red light or someone speeding round a corner. If the vehicle knows about it in advance, the trolley problem never occurs. For me it’s about having the data earlier, and how we, as representatives of infrastructure, can help to give cars that information.”

For further info, visit vivacitylabs.com.

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.