Driverless cars trialled in Oxford

The trials are allegedly the most complex public tests of autonomous vehicles so far

Driverless cars were tested on the streets of Oxford last week as part of a research project conducted by DRIVEN, a UK-based consortium.

The 30-month project, which began in July 2017, aims to make it easier for autonomous vehicles to get onto the commercial market.

Lead partner of the DRIVEN consortium is Oxfordshire-based Oxbotica – a spin-out company from the University’s Robotics Institute, set up by Oxford Professor Paul Newman – as well as Oxfordshire County Council and Transport for London.

Last week’s test, which was deemed successful by researchers, saw two vehicles trialled on Oxford’s streets. The cars encountered pedestrians, cyclists, and other traffic autonomously.

Oxbotica told Cherwell that though driverless cars have been trialled on Oxford streets before, this test was to demonstrate the interactions between the cars.

DRIVEN project director and Oxbotica CEO Dr Graeme Smith told New Scientist: This is a significant landmark in the development of vehicle autonomy, which has always been about more than simply self-driving.

“This public trial demonstrates that our technology is able to share data and information that vehicles are then able to use to plot more effective routes, avoid potential hazards, and anticipate conditions more effectively.

“This will have huge implications on the way autonomous vehicles will operate and how the future of road travel in the UK looks, improving safety, efficiency and productivity.”

The cars used in the trial operate using what is known as “Level 4 autonomy”, meaning the car can “[drive] itself most of the time without much human input”, Oxbotica told Cherwell. According to DRIVEN, the trials they are conducting are the most complex public tests of autonomous vehicles so far.

When asked how driverless cars would be able to navigate around the high number of cyclists in Oxford, Newman told Cherwell: “We have always been Oxford-based, so the brain behind our driverless cars, called Selenium, has learned from data collected in and around Oxford.

“Oxbotica technology is incredibly adept in dense urban environments, and is used to interacting with lots of cyclists, pedestrians, buses, taxis and cars.”

Newman also emphasised how driverless cars are compatible with the local government’s transport vision. He said: “The DRIVEN consortium involves a number of partners, including Oxfordshire County Council. This means we can work very closely with the local authority to align our plans for future transport in Oxford.”

Oxford MP Anneliese Dodds told Cherwell: “It has been good to see Oxford yet again pushing forward innovation, with driverless cars now being tested on our streets. Driverless cars offer enormous potential, especially if they enable more people to share the same
vehicle, as indeed is scheduled to occur in the autonomous pods that will be used by commuters between Didcot Parkway station and Milton Park.

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“However we have to be aware of the safety concerns that have been raised by pedestrians and cyclists, and of the potential employment impact on those who drive for a living. I know these and other issues are being taken seriously by those who are developing the technology in our own city and county.”

DRIVEN plan to have a fleet of six driverless cars being trialled around Oxford’s roads by the end of the year. Newman says the final aim of the project is to have autonomous vehicles “driving between Oxford and London.”

In January, Cherwell reported on how driverless cars could be the future of transportation in the city. Nigel Tipple, chief executive of OxLEP, told Cherwell: “Students are, of course, among those living and working in Oxford who could benefit from this type of transport innovation; pods could bring cheaper, more efficient and economical travel, particularly around the city centre, and the introduction of such new technology would also mean we all benefit from living and working in a cleaner, greener, less congested city.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that this was the first time driverless cars had been tested on Oxford’s streets. Additionally, it referred to DRIVEN as a ‘company’ rather than a consortium, and said the driverless car project began in April 2017. These mistakes have been corrected.