Oxbotica behind major UK driverless vehicle programme

An ambitious programme in autonomous vehicle technology and development is being showcased this week in London’s iconic Olympic Park.

This major milestone in a 30-month government-supported project has seen a fleet of self-driving vehicles safely navigating the modern, urban environment – underscoring the UK’s commitment in the arena. The prototype vehicles succeeded in driving in complex urban environments without the need for human input – exceeding initial plans in terms of complexity and achievement.

The jointly-funded £13.6m programme, Driven, is powered by Oxbotica’s autonomous software and brings together a range of technical experts in areas such as local authority planning, insurance, cyber security and data trading. Axa XL, Nominet, Telefonica, TRL, RACE, Oxfordshire County Council, Oxford Robotics Institute and Transport for London are all involved.

Transport minister, George Freeman said self-driving technology has the scope to “revolutionise the way people travel” with potentially profound benefits for road safety, accessibility and convenience.

“We want to drive the roll-out of self-driving vehicles and continue to support innovators developing this ground-breaking technology. The success of trials like project Driven underpin our Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy, highlighting our ongoing support for innovation, research and the trialling of exciting new technology which cements our position as a global leader in this space,” he said.

Driven programme director and senior vice-president at Oxbotica, Dr Graeme Smith added: “The completion of the Driven project marks a significant milestone for the future of autonomous vehicles in the UK. Establishing Britain as a world leader for innovative technologies has been at the heart of our mission and we’re incredibly proud of the steps we have taken to help make AVs a reality on our roads.”

The government is making good progress with its stated objectives in autonomous vehicle testing and development. There are still unanswered questions around liability, however.

Senior associate and product liability expert at insurance law firm, DAC Beachcroft, Olya Melnitchouk says: "A safe transition to automated driving requires clear definitions and warnings to help [drivers] understand their own and their vehicles' responsibilities."

Defining 'autonomous vehicle' for liability

As CIR reported in August, there is still no official definition of what an ‘autonomous vehicle’ is; something which is crucial in terms of determining liability.

The most common definition is the US-based Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) levels. Level one came in with the use of cruise control and lane-keep assist. Level two, where computers combine speed and steering systems together using multiple data sources – is where we are now (only level two vehicles are presently legal on public roads).

Next is level three, where a driver must still be on hand to respond to a request to intervene.
The big step forward will be level four where the driver will not really be needed: fully autonomous in controlled geo-fenced metropolitan areas using HD mapping, real-time data and inter-car communication. The goal is level five, where the vehicle will be able to self-drive anywhere.

The distinction between levels three and four has considerable implications from a risk and liability perspective. The United Nations Economic Committee for Europe (UNECE) is developing its own definition of autonomous vehicle, which will take precedence over the existing SAE levels; and insurers in particular are pushing hard to ensure the term ‘driverless’ can only be used if vehicles really are – and that an alert driver is not needed to remain available as the safety fall-back.

The Association of British Insurers insists that until a vehicle can handle emergency scenarios without driver intervention, they can only be considered to offer advanced driver assistance (ADS). "In these vehicles, drivers do remain fully responsible for the car and must be ready to take back control at any moment," it says.

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