So far, 2017 has seen a raft of announcements regarding driverless cars, with Apple finally announcing it's joining the driverless car race. The UK government has also given the green light to perform trials on public roads later this year, with Chancellor Philip Hammond promising "fully driverless cars" without a safety attendant on board on roads in the UK 2021.

And despite the dominance of the US, Japan and Germany, could the UK compete in the rush to get driverless cars on the road?

Google's prototype car comes without a steering wheel or brakes ©Google

The UK's first driverless car trials launched in Milton Keynes in 2015, one of several that have been funded by the government to fast-track the futuristic technology.

There are several incentives to make cars without drivers the norm, the first is reducing the amount of crashes, reducing the 94 percent of crashes which are due to human error.

The UK’s Department for Transport believes driverless cars will allow people to be more mobile and productive as well as cutting emissions and reducing congestion.

The technology could also help UK businesses. If the UK positioned itself at the front of research and development, there could be a manufacturing and advisory services boost for the economy.

Let's take a look at how driverless car technology is developing across the globe.

Read next: Driverless cars: 11 questions the insurance industry must answer

 

UK Tech Weekly Podcast: Driverless Cars

What is the rest of the world doing? 

Asia may be the main contender for first prize. Nissan and Toyota have been piloting on public roads in Japan since 2013, where prototype cars already have license plates. Singapore launched driverless car trials in October 2015.

The US

On the other side of the pond, Google is perhaps the best-known as an autonomous vehicle pioneer. It has been working on driverless cars for several years and unveiled a prototype last year, giving it a huge head start on its rivals.

Last year, Ford said it would start testing fully autonomous vehicles in California and it has been working with Google and various tech startups on its programme. 

Apple was historically quiet on the driverless car front but recently announced that it would be developing automated systems, and while CEO Tim Cook gave reference to driverless cars, he didn't specify whether Apple would be creating autonomous software, licencing or a vehicle itself. 

US taxi-hailing firm Uber launched its 'Advanced Technologies Center' in February 2015 in Pittsburgh and struck a deal with Arizona in September 2015 to test its driverless cars in public, making it another contender in this area. 

In an expansion of its Pittsburg trial in early 2016, Uber began picking up passengers in the San Francisco area in December 2016.

Each one of Uber's self-driving fleet with have a safety driver and an Uber test engineer to take start manually driving the car when needed and monitor the smart technology. All passengers need to do is request an uberX using the standard consumer-facing mobile app.

The US is ahead thanks to its tech ecosystem and private investment. However, law stands in the way. It introduced federal legislation to permit testing of driverless cars - but only four states have taken advantage of it (provided the “driver” has $5 million worth of insurance bonds to cover any damage). Fifteen states rejected bills for driverless cars and the US’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned individuals against driverless cars.

Lastly, Elon Musk's electric car firm Tesla plans to launch driverless cars, starting with software updates to its existing Model S vehicles which let them automatically steer, change lanes, and park on their own.

European rivals

Germany and Sweden are the only two countries, apart from the UK, to have conducted a review of their law and driverless cars. German legislation has thrown a spanner in the works - it found that driverless cars do not currently comply. Equally, Swedish’ driverless car trials must take place in designated areas to avoid negligence claims.

However German car manufacturers have been cracking on with prototypes. At CES 2016, BMW unveiled its driverless 'iVision Future Interaction' concept car to rave reviews, although it has said its cars won't be 'highly automated' (i.e. not requiring driver input) until 'sometime after 2020'. 

The UK

During the state opening of Parliament on Wednesday (21 June), the UK government gave the green light to expand autonomous vehicle research and trials on public roads.

Prime Minister Theresa May said developers would be able to produce driverless cars for public use with the first set of public road trials are due to take place in Milton Keynes and Coventry by the end of the year.

The UK allows driverless car trials to take place on public roads anywhere, without the need for permission, so long as they are covered by an (undoubtedly colossal) insurance bond.

But insurers such as RSA are actively working with some of the first trials which began in February 2015 in Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol, backed by a £19 million fund from the taxpayer. We have research from academics at Oxford and Cambridge University, as well as the most challenging road traffic situations. If you can put a driverless car on the road in Europe's "megacity" of London, the Department for Transport says, you can put it anywhere.

In October 2016, - Milton Keynes - a driverless car was tested among members of the public in. The test took place in a pedestrianised area of the city with the electric car reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour over a two-kilometre parameter. 

What's more, in early 2016, the registration for the UK’s first public driverless vehicle trials have opened and took place in Greenwich at the end of 2016. 

Legacy car manufacturers, Volvo launched 'Drive Me UK' in 2016, an extensive UK-based autonomous driving trial, involving up to 100 driverless cars being driven on real roads by real people in 2017. 

In 2016, the British government launched a consultation to explore how autonomous vehicles can be insured, as well as hashing out rules of the road for self-driving cars and existing regulations that may hold back adoption.

The proposals include changes to insurance laws so that “motorists who have handed control to their self-driving cars can be insured properly”. It also suggests amendments to the Highway Code along with redrafting regulations to “support the safe use of remote control parking and motorway assist features”.

These changes are set to appear in the upcoming Modern Transport Bill. According to the Department for Transport, motor insurance will remain compulsory but will be extended to cover product liability for self-driving cars.

Challenges

There are plenty of challenges that are not unique to the UK. Firstly, security. The government said they will outline security policies in 2018. Most carmakers have predicted 2020 will be the year that driverless cars will take over the roads, which leaves a two-year window. If you consider the three-year production window for vehicles, there is a discrepancy. 

An episode at BMW last year shed light on how unreliable software embedded into cars could be, if not secured properly. BMW patched the 2.2 million cars that connect to its ConnectedDrive platform after hackers were able to unlock cars using their smartphones in a simple “man in the middle” attack. Hackers sent information from a server pretending to be BMW and essentially fooled the car into unlocking. The carmaker responded with a patch that encrypted its data, and released a statement that is now offered security to rival online banking.

But Tony Dyhouse, a director at the government-backed Trustworthy Software Initiative - a not for profit organisation that promotes secure software in business - said this announcement sent a ripple of concern through the security industry.

“They had quite a window of opportunity and the answer they gave surprised everybody in the security trade - they said ‘we now have put in HTTPS encryption which is what the banks use’. But that isn't only what the banks use, that is absolutely bog-standard good practice. So security people were wondering ‘what, you didn’t originally have this?’”

BMW knew about the flaw for six months, but it was only when Europe's largest motorists' club, ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club) published news of the thefts, that the carmaker made a patch.

Dyhouse finds this is symptomatic of the car industry as a whole. He says: “The focus is just on the functionality it is not on the core basics. They are starting with a weak platform ... A lot are reliant on old software that does have vulnerabilities. As they produce the software they just don’t test enough and there seems to be a lack of understanding that people do want to break it. Mischief alone can be a motive.”

“We live in a world where commercial espionage plays a big part. It’s endemic in the car industry.”

When drivers, or passengers, begin plugging in their own devices, more vulnerabilities may appear.

“It’s not just the proprietary software writers, it can just be a man developing software in his room with a global reach”, Dyhouse adds.

Encrypting data will be essential to ensure the privacy of drivers, and good marketing for the carmakers. It is something that the government is unlikely to involve itself in, as it is keen for “light touch” policies that do not stifle innovation. But without writing as “trustworthy” software as possible throughout the supply chain, Dyhouse adds, there could be accidents.

“Where software is interacting with other software it is easy to see how data can be corrupted or changed and decisions made without a human’s knowledge. In driverless vehicles, which is a group of sensors talking to each other, it only takes one incorrect piece of data and the sensors will make an incorrect decision. That might be the difference between ‘go’ and ‘stop’.”

Manufacturers, Dyhouse says, will be motivated not only by the cost of potential recalls but its standing amongst the public.

“It will largely be a reputational thing to drive manufacturers to get this right, but I’m very afraid that it will take some disaster before then.”

So who is ahead?

To assess who is ahead is difficult. Although Google is pouring huge investment into its car venture and unveiled a prototype car as far back as December 2014, traditional carmakers Toyota, Denso Corp, General Motors and Hyundai have filed the most autonomous driving patents in recent years - an indicator of who might be first to bring a car to market.

Other automotive manufacturers have expressed their desire to beat the internet giant not only in engineering and technology but through their ability to gather data too.

It’s too early to know who will take the lead in the international driverless car race, but now that the government has concluded there are no legal obstacles to testing, our industry would be missing a trick if it didn’t make a claim for the trophy.

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