Driverless Cars in the UK: Who's Testing What, Where and When?

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

Though our fast food-chompin’, beer-swiggin’, 'Murican cousins may have you believing that the Land of the Free is the only place in the world advanced enough to play host to autonomous cars, it isn’t. The UK hasn’t just got a piece of the action, but is shaping up to position itself as the European hotspot for driverless car testing.

Funnily enough, much of that is by pure chance. Britain failed to sign the 1968 Vienna Convention On Road Traffic, you know, the one that states that "every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals...[and] every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver," while 72 other nations -- including much of Europe -- did.

In short, while we’re testing self-driving cars on public roads, much of the rest of the world will be busy trying to wriggle out of a legal contract. Here are the autonomous car schemes Knight Rider fans and non-drivers (like me) are pinning all of their hopes on.

GATEway

Before you ask, I did indeed hit the Caps Lock key for a reason. The Greenwich Automated Transport Environment(way) project is arguably the Innovate UK project that’s garnered the most attention. Why? Only because members of the flipping public will be able to actually go for a spin in the funky-looking electric shuttles.

The pods all need to be driven around an area by a human first, so they can map and store the roads, but after that it’s all down to the vehicles themselves. Using built-in lasers, sensors and cameras, they’ll be able to navigate themselves around set routes -- avoiding obstacles, hazards and pedestrians too -- leaving you free to take selfies/shit your pants with one eye on the road ahead and another on your nearest door handle.

Registration for participation opened earlier this month, so get your name down sharpish if you fancy an early self-driving adventure.

UK Autodrive

Comfortably the biggest project born from the government’s ‘Introducing Driverless Cars to UK Roads’ initiative in terms of public financing, UK Autodrive has slurped up almost £10 million in funding from Innovate UK. The two-city scheme should bring some much-needed joy to Milton Keynes and Coventry, and will see the wonderfully-named and weird-looking Lutz Pathfinder hit public roads.

The RDM-built two-seaters are fully-electric and capable of going for 40 miles at up to 15 miles per hour (or eight hours) before they require powering up again. The Pathfinders also feature a steering wheel, as like the GATEway pods, a person with a license and sensible road skills needs to drive them around a pre-determined route for mapping purposes before they can do the job themselves, using radar and a range of sensors and controls developed by the University of Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Group.

At this point, UK Autodrive appears to be a little behind GATEway in terms of testing, with the first wave of road-ready Pathfinders expected to be unleashed upon Milton Keynes towards the backend of this year. If they don’t kill anyone, as many as 40 will follow, being used to carry non-electric pedestrians along various busy routes.

Venturer

I know what you’re thinking and yes, I’m just as confused as you are. That looks relatively normal. What on earth have they been smoking over in Bristol? Venturer is probably the Innovate UK scheme you’ve heard the least about, but that makes it no less exciting.

The vehicle pictured above is the BAE Systems Wildcat, which should hit public roads in the coming weeks. Initial tests will be held at the University of West of England campus, where there should be plenty of passed-out students to steer around -- with subsequent trials to follow in South Gloucestershire and Bristol City Centre during 2017 and 2018.

One of Venturer’s main focuses is the impact driverless cars will have on insurance and legislature. In theory, less accidents = lower insurance costs, but the team behind the project warns that market awareness could make the matter a little more complex.

The Wildcats (High School Musical references below, please) will, of course, be autonomous, but only Level 3 autonomous, meaning that human drivers will be able to dive in whenever the car's on-board tech finds itself in a situation it can't deal with. Sounds sensible, but also kind of nail-bitingly nerve-wracking for passengers.

Drive Me London

This one's fun for all the family. Volvo will roll out a fleet of (again, normal-looking, I hope this isn't a trend) self-driving XC90 SUVs to public roads in London early next year as part of Drive Me London, and wants regular, ordinary families, including the ones you might find on an episode of Jeremy Kyle, to test them.

Like the government-backed projects described above, Volvo's cars will only be able to navigate certain pre-approved and pre-mapped London roads on their own, and you'll be able to take over driving duties at any point.

The cars themselves will record data from everyday users to help develop driverless cars for real-world conditions, and Volvo hopes to follow up the tests by bringing 100 fully-autonomous cars to the capital in 2018.