Autonomous Vehicles

Automated or autonomous systems have been around for a long time in aircraft (autopilot, autoland) and rail systems (automatic train operation on the Dockland Light Railway, Victoria and other underground lines) and are also playing a role in improving day-to-day operations such as container stacking in ports. However they are playing an increasing role in hazardous and challenging environments where human lives may be exposed to greater risk.

Autonomous vehicles are playing an increasing role in hazardous and challenging environments where human lives may be exposed to greater risk, such as the use of micro unmanned aircraft in Fukushima. There is also a significant interest in their increased use in the automotive sector: i.e. cruise control, collision avoidance and autonomous vehicles.

Our acceptance of these systems relies on there still being a need to have a human present to ‘take control’ should the need occur, but what could the future look like if we remove this ‘human safety net’?

The opportunities across the transport modes; road, railway, aerospace and maritime are immense and wide ranging but cross-cutting technologies are not often developed or even considered outside of each specific industry area leading to duplication of R&D, resourcing and implementation. One key opportunity here is to pool resources that can be transferable and provide technologies and innovations across all transport sectors for the benefit of all, including the end user.

IET debate on Autonomous Vehicles

The IET organised a debate hosted by past President, Chris Earnshaw and attended by representatives from academia, industry, policymakers and research organisations which addressed the opportunities across all the modes of transport and the IET’s role in advancing public policy and perception around these technologies, as well as engaging with government and industry.

Highlights of keynote speech

  1. Existing Technologies
    From the University of Newcastle, Professor Phil Blythe shared his thoughts on the technology, some issues and their possible solutions.  Most people did not realise that driverless trains were already running, such as the Docklands Light Railway and Copenhagen metro.  Autonomous cargo ships were expected within the next 10 years and underwater autonomous vehicles were already in widespread use.  
  2. Future Predictions
    Last year, David Willetts MP had identified autonomous vehicles and robotics as one of the great eight technology challenges of the future.  Professor Blythe specified that challenge as bringing together disparate skills to unite the best possible systems.  This is where the IET could play a role.
  3. Challenges
    It was important to distinguish between completely autonomous vehicles and those that allowed some degree of driver intervention.  Dual mode systems were likely to operate for the next 10 years until people learned to trust the technology.  The research perhaps ought to be focused on sensor capabilities that could process information in real time, adjusting to varying environmental parameters.  Ensuring reliable communications was vital, as well as cyber protection.  
  4. Cars and Perception
    Congested cities might better optimise their road networks by eliminating the role of the driver, so they could control speeds and lane discipline and achieve steady flow.  Further benefits would be to increase mobility for the elderly, offer drivers more time to be productive, lower fuel bills and carbon emissions, and minimise car parking requirements.  Legal culpability was a consequential concern.  The evening’s discussions targeted the real drivers for change and how to move them forward.  In which environments could these multi disciplinary technologies be tested most safely?


The meeting had expressed a high level of confidence that autonomous vehicles would become more pervasive.  The challenge was more in full autonomy, opposed to closed or semi closed environments, where there was less interaction with the wider public.  Until mixed mode technologies could be widely tested, talking about ‘assisted’ rather than ‘autonomous driving’ might help the public get used to driverless vehicles on the roads.  

The UK had developed skills that could be applied to cyber security and complex systems.  Many of the examples from this evening came from software related technologies.  The country had also been successful in developing standards that could provide a framework for innovation and a platform by which small and large companies could add value.  The IET could play an important role in bringing together all the stakeholders who might benefit from the effective deployment of this technology, so that ideas could be compiled and reported to Government.  

A full insight of the debate will be published soon.