UK gives driverless cars the green light

The United Kingdom invested nearly $30 million to launch four different testing programs for driverless cars.

Matt Dunham/AP
A woman poses for photographers beside a prototype driverless car called a LUTZ (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone) Pathfinder Pod during a launch event for the media near the O2 Arena in London, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Britain has begun testing driverless cars in four cities, launching the first official trials ahead of a series of planned rule reviews to accommodate the new technology.

On Wednesday, the United Kingdom unveiled the self-driving car the Lutz Pathfinder, which will lead the country’s initiative to become the world leader in driverless car technology.

The British government has invested £19 million ($29.01 million) to launch four different driverless car testing programs across the country, including the Lutz, which will be tested in Milton Keynes and Coventry. Trials of other models will also go forth in Bristol and Greenwich.

"Driverless vehicle technology has the potential to be a real game-changer on the UK's roads, altering the face of motoring in the most fundamental of ways and delivering major benefits for road safety, social inclusion, emissions and congestion," transport minister Claire Perry told BBC

The government is set to have fully reviewed the current driving and road safety legislation by the summer of 2017. The process will involve rewriting highway code and vehicle testing guidelines. But the most important problems to solve are how to ensure safety of pedestrians and determine who is at fault in accidents.

"These trials are not just about harnessing technology to make our travelling lives easier and safer, they also involve getting the regulation right,” Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, told the BBC. "Alongside the hi-tech innovation you need policy decisions on long-term, low-tech matters such as who takes responsibility if things go wrong."

The Lutz Pathfinder includes 19 sensors, cameras, radar, and a remote sensing technology called Lidar, plus its own entertainment system. Once rolled out onto the street, the vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and be connected to a smartphone app that allows people to hail them, like one would a taxi.

The UK is not the first country to invest in this technology, or to begin testing. In Europe, Sweden and Germany have also begun to review legislation in this area and test cars on the roads.

But the United States was the first country to allow the testing of driverless cars, although only four states have allowed it – California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada – while 15 others have outright rejected it. The American driverless car effort is being spearheaded by Google, which started working on the project in 2005.

Similar to the Lutz, Google’s robotic car uses a Lidar remote sensing system that allows the car to form a 3-D map of its environment. This map is then combined with a high-definition inch-precision map of the world that allows the car to drive itself.

“With driverless cars, everyone imagines you tap in your destination, sit back and read the paper and off you go,” Steve Yianni, chief executive of the Transport Systems Catapult, which is leading the Milton Keynes trials, told The Guardian. “We’re about 10 years from that.”

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