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Driverless taxis to become a major form of transport 'in 10 years'

Self-driving pods would shuttle people to work or to the shops. Image courtesy CityMobil2

People in cities will shift from using private transport to using self-driving public taxis, as fleets of shared, low-speed electric cars are introduced over the next decade, according to European researchers working on the future of automated transport.

By contrast, travel in rural areas and for long journeys will continue to rely on private cars, although these will become more and more automated to increase safety and comfort.

Dr Michel Parent, an advanced road transport expert at INRIA, the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, has been working on various EU-funded projects since the 90s to develop self-driving cars that would operate in city centres. He says that fleets of on-demand driverless vehicles that pick people up from their homes and connect them with mass public transport networks could be operational within a decade.

‘I would say that in some cities we will see it in five to 10 years as a major transportation, at least the shift from private mobility to public mobility,’ he said. ‘The technology is available; we have demonstrated the feasibility and the safety of these systems. Now it’s up to the cities and up to European legislation to come up with rules to deploy these systems.’

In the meantime, the viability of expanding fully automated transport to entire cities is being demonstrated by the CityMobil2 project, which has already trialled self-driving vehicles in La Rochelle, France, and is now doing so in Lausanne, Switzerland.

‘All the different car manufacturers are looking right now at what kind of service they can offer instead of selling a chunk of metal.’

Dr Michel Parent, INRIA, Paris, France

As these systems are tested, researchers are collecting feedback to send to manufacturers and city officials. One problem has been that the cars are silent so pedestrians are often not aware that they’re moving. ‘We have identified this as a risk,’ said Dr Parent. ‘We have asked the manufacturer to make the vehicle more visible and more audible.’

He says the biggest aid to popular uptake would be for the EU to establish rules for how self-driving car systems would operate. ‘Cities could do it right now; they have the ability to run these experiments if they take responsibility. It will take some bold city officials to start the process without legislation.’

Clean and safe

Self-driving cars operate at speeds of up to 30 km per hour, they run on electricity from renewable sources, and they can talk to the road infrastructure as well as to each other. The vision is that wide-scale adoption would not only make transport in cities cleaner and safer, but also free of traffic jams, as the flow of traffic could be controlled centrally, a bit like air traffic control.

While ridding cities of private cars might take some getting used to, Dr Parent believes it will catch on. ‘People are very smart. If it is more convenient and cheaper they will not hesitate one instant. I can see a future where there are almost no private cars in cities.’

Outside cities, however, experts believe that the trend will be towards increasingly automated private cars, with development of new features driven by the automotive industry.

Dr Maxime Flament is coordinator of the EU-funded VRA project, which looks at how to bring together all the different research on automated transport that is happening in Europe.

‘We are not really talking about a revolution, we are talking about an evolution of the technologies stored in the vehicles,’ he said. ‘At the beginning they were just giving information or warnings to the drivers, but gradually they are getting more and more active and intervene in the driving task.’

However, the question of liability means that full automation for private cars is a long way off and some believe that it may never happen.

‘The idea of autopilot on highways is, I think, relatively close, in less than five years,’ said Dr Flament. ‘However, it’s not going to be the kind of vehicle where you just detach yourself from the driving task, you’re still going to have to monitor the driving task the same way you do today with the normal cruise control. The driver should always have the possibility to intervene if needed.’

Software and digital infrastructure

As manufacturers head towards creating cars that operate on autopilot, the role of software is becoming just as important as hardware. Not only does the software need to be completely reliable and up-to-date, but it also needs enough information to take the right decisions at the right time, particularly in the case of rare events.

Building up information on rare events means testing the vehicles in normal traffic conditions and working out how to certify new cars coming on the market to show that the cars can operate and react safely.

While increased automation is expected to reduce the number of accidents on the roads, further testing will also provide researchers with more quantifiable data about exactly how much of an increase in road safety we could expect as humans are gradually removed from driving decisions.

Dr Flament says that one of the big challenges for researchers is to set up a ‘transport cloud’, whereby vehicles and infrastructure can share information about events and conditions so that vehicles are able to anticipate any increased level of risk and organise themselves accordingly.

‘It’s kind of like an electronic horizon, they will see in a virtual way what is in front of them. We foresee that the digitally available information about the road infrastructure will be as important as the signs posted along the roads in the future.’

This will have a major impact on road operators, who in the future will not only need to maintain the physical roads but also the digital roads, for example by notifying the transport cloud of any roadworks, changes in speed limit or end of queue positions.

While Europe is currently a global leader in automated transport research, there are still many elements that need to come together to achieve its full potential. Dr Flament says that defining the roles and responsibilities of the different stakeholders, such as road operators, urban planners and public authorities, is one of the most pressing matters for policymakers to address.

Both Dr Flament and Dr Parent believe that the automotive industry is also facing a big change, not only in the type of vehicles they will be producing in the future but in their entire business model as their customers move away from individual car ownership towards shared car usership.

‘All the different car manufacturers are looking right now at what kind of service they can offer instead of selling a chunk of metal,’ said Dr Parent. ‘It’s a big change in business model.’

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