In the UK, 75% of families own a car, and as a population we travel over 244 billion miles a year in cars. In the near future, how we drive those miles will change dramatically. Increasingly, autonomous systems technology will control our vehicles, with intelligent automation making driving safer, more efficient and more predictable.
The concept of cars that could drive without human input first reached international prominence through the DARPA Grand Challenges from 2004 to 2007, with autonomous vehicles completing 132 miles in the desert and then 60 miles in an urban environment. Although not without incident, these events demonstrated that localisation and navigation technologies from pioneering mobile robots like Rhino and Minerva could be transferred into domain of outdoor vehicles. One of the key researchers on those robots, Sebastian Thrun, went on to head the leading teams in the first DARPA Grand Challenges, before joining Google to help them build their first driverless cars.
Although the term "driverless car" is a popular name for autonomous vehicles, it represents just one point on a broader spectrum of vehicle capabilities.
To support legislation and planning, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined six levels of automation. These range from SAE0 which is traditional driving, up to SAE5 which is full automation requiring no driver (i.e. a true driverless car). At lower levels (SAE0-SAE2) the human must monitor the environment at all times as part of limited control system. This includes reasonably common technology such as adaptive cruise control (SAE1), up to partial automation in specific contexts (SAE2). This latter level includes the current industry leader Tesla's autopilot system which can autonomously steer and accelerate under a range of conditions (over 20kph, where good road markings are visible).
When moving from SAE2 to SAE3 an important switch occurs. At SAE3 and above the car, rather than the driver is responsible for monitoring the environment. As the levels rise the driver goes from needing to be available to take over when requested, to being "eyes off, hands off", up to SAE5 where the car may not even provide the ability for a driver to take over. The switch of who monitors the environment is important as this is where the insurance liability will switch from the driver to the manufacturer.
Thanks to support from EPSRC and Innovate UK, the UK is at the forefront of autonomous vehicle development and testing. Four cities have been chosen as test sites for autonomous vehicles of various forms. The first of these tests has recently gone live with the LUTZ Pathfinder taking to the pedestrian areas of Milton Keynes. The autonomy in these pods is provided by the University of Oxford's Robotics Institute, and includes a range of state-of-the-art AI components to support sensing (what is around the vehicle), planning (what should the vehicle do next) and action (how should the vehicle do it).
The Midlands is a very active area in autonomous vehicles. Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors are both leading their research and development into connected and autonomous vehicle technology in the area, and the University of Birmingham has world leading research into automotive radar and intelligent autonomous capabilities, both of which are increasingly important for automotive applications.
The miles we all drive in 2026 will feature a lot more automation than those in 2016. The increased safety and comfort of these miles will be driven by the developments being made in AI and robotics today. And the changes in behaviours and business models these technologies support will show that Uber's recent first use of autonomous taxis or their recent autonomous delivery of 51,744 cans of Budweiser is just the tip of an autonomous, revolutionary, iceberg.
Dr Nick Hawes
Reader in Autonomous Intelligent Robotics
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.