Boost for driverless cars in government plans

Philip Hammond’s autumn statement wasn’t one of the most radical overhauls of economic policy ever overseen by a British chancellor but one aspect of it was potentially revolutionary.

That was his announcement that he wanted to see the UK prepared to be ready for self-driving cars by 2021.  It was a bold statement but one that was justified by a changing world in motoring. The news that 2017 saw a steep decline in new car sales (particularly among diesel models) shows that consumers are looking to the future. Couple this with the many driverless trials going on right now – trials run by such diverse companies as Google, Apple, Daimler, Volvo, Toyota and Uber – and we can see which way the wind’s blowing.

The British government has already committed £50 million to driverless car technology and it’s clear that it’s happy to provide more to, er, drive the industry forward.

But it’s not that simple,there are several issues with driverless cars – and that’s before we get into issues such as insurance and liability – and the government should be looking at ways to mitigate the problems.

One of the prime concerns is the strength of the surrounding network. Wide scale driverless cars will need an extensive, high speed resilient mobile network – 5G in other words. Of course, there are plenty of 5G trials currently underway, but it's not yet clear-cut how the technology will shape up. 

But even where there are standards, there’s also the UK’s long history of under-investing in infrastructure.  As we saw, just before Christmas, the overall mobile coverage in this country is poor – a situation where just 43% of the area is accessible to all mobile operators is not one of a country truly at home with advanced mobile technology – the essential pre-cursor to driverless cars.

At least there’s been an acknowledgement of the issue, a government report, released just before Christmas, has set out a future direction for British motorways, one which could support a massive increase in driverless cars.

Highways England is looking to roll out 5G technology and wi-fi across 4,400 miles of motorway, in preparation for autonomous motoring.  It’s proposing a £15 billion investment in fiber optic cabling and mobile technology to improve service. According to the report, “Highways England is "exploring how 5G technologies could best be deployed across the road network in order to maximize the productivity benefits for self-driving vehicles".

It’s a situation that needs improving: Ofcom has set out the poor state of coverage in its Connected Nations report. “Coverage on roads also needs to improve. It is possible to make a telephone call from all four networks while inside a vehicle on just 68% of A and B roads, while 58% of A and B roads have in-vehicle data coverage. These figures are up from 56% and 45% respectively last year.” And areas that are poorly covered are Wales and Scotland – countries that aren’t part of Highways England’s brief.

The report also went on to say that there were particular issues about motoring that made Our coverage figures take into account the reduction of mobile signal levels as they travel through the metal frame of a typical vehicle. Motorists increasingly rely on mobile connectivity for a wide range of services, from entertainment to navigation, and we expect this reliance to increase as ‘connected cars’ become more popular.”

So, we already have the lack of mobile coverage and the particular difficulties caused by metal framed vehicles, but there are other issues too.

There’s also a debate about the standard for vehicle to everything communication, an important precursor for autonomous motoring. There’s a debate going on right now as whether C-V2X or 802.11p will hold sway. A lot of eyes are on the European Commission who are considering whether to mandate C-V2X as standard, it’s a decision that could shape the future development of autonomous vehicles.

What sort of cars?

And finally, there’s the question of what sort of vehicles will we have in the future? Automotive manufacturers have moved away from thinking of cars as mechanical objects and have started imagining them as computers on wheels. Volkswagen, for example, is already looking at the revenue opportunities for a connected car – it terms of selling services to advertisers that can be relayed to the car and even looking at teaming up with parcel delivery services. Volkswagen aren’t alone in this: all manufacturers are looking to expand the revenue potential of vehicles.

Those types of services aren’t reserved for driverless cars, of course, but the more that there’s a fast, reliable infrastructure surrounding a road system, the quicker it will be to build modern vehicles.

The proposed roll-out of fiber along the motorways is only the start. There needs to be a corresponding improvement in A and B highways and on rural roads – areas of Britain that are poorly served by mobile coverage.       

There’s a degree of optimism about the driverless car industry in the UK. The government hopes to set the pace when it comes to autonomous vehicles and it hopes that the forthcoming trials in Milton Keynes, Coventry, Greenwich and Bristol will demonstrate the country’s capabilities. But what’s in question is not the UK’s technical skill but its ability to roll out an infrastructure to support those technologies. Highways England is making the right noises about investment but the state of the current infrastructure suggests that we shouldn’t be too hopeful about progression in this area.