In May, all eyes will be on the world’s first fleet of five autonomous buses all set for their maiden trip in Scotland.
With a capacity for about 10,000 passenger journeys per week and speeds up to 50mph, the buses will cover a 14-mile route that covers Ferrytoll Park and Ride in Fife to Edinburgh Park train and tram interchange, with Stagecoach revealing the route over the Forth Road Bridge will launch on May 15.
While technology will be behind the wheel, a standby driver will monitor the safety and how the technology functions in each bus. And on the floor, a so-called ‘captain’ will help passengers with boarding, buying tickets and queries.
“This is an exciting milestone for this innovative and ambitious project, and I very much look forward to seeing Project CAVForth take to the roads next month. Our trunk road network can provide a wide range of environments as a diverse testing ground, and the groundbreaking and globally significant project will really help Scotland establish its credentials on the world stage,” Kevin Stewart, Scottish Transport Minister told the BBC.
It took Stagecoach almost one year to finish its trail as safety measures were one of the top priorities for the company.
Back in April 2022, its project manager Louise Simpson told the BBC: “For the moment, there is a legal requirement to have somebody behind the wheel at all times, so we will definitely have a driver in the cab to monitor the system and be able to take over if needed, although that shouldn’t be the case.”
However, six months after Stagecoach began its trial, another self-driving bus nicknamed Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Driverless Machiney had to be driven manually at its launch in a Scottish trial of autonomous vehicle passenger services, due to software issues.
Come what may, safety concerns remain around existing vehicles and the next generation as the automotive industry is undergoing a significant technological revolution with the advent of autonomous or driverless cars.
According to the World Health Organization, 1.3 million people approximately die each year as a result of road traffic crashes that cost most countries 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP).
Simpson knew it and had told the BBC a year ago: “It is estimated that over 90% of road traffic accidents are down to human error. There is always a limit to what any human can see and anticipate whereas these vehicles will have a 360° view of their surroundings with an ability to see further than any human could.”
“We hope with the ability to take preventative action to avoid a collision, we will see an improvement in safety. But with the driver not being confined to the cab area, they will also have more time to offer a better customer experience without having to operate the vehicle, keep the service to time and the other pressures our drivers currently face,” she added.
More than half of all road traffic deaths are among vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists and road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged between five and 29 years.
Even though low- and middle-income countries have approximately 60% of the world’s vehicles, 93% of the world’s fatalities on the roads occur in these countries.
The United Nations General Assembly has set an ambitious target of reducing the global number of deaths and injuries from road traffic crashes to half by 2030.
The existing safety features in cars such as Anti-Braking System (ABS), airbags and traditional seatbelts are not sufficient when compared to rising death toll figures from road accidents.
Improving safety standards in the automotive industry
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)—an HCLTech solution for safe driving—comes from the research on drowsy driving conducted by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The research estimated that approximately 100,000 crashes each year were caused by driver fatigue, lack of sleep and no clear vision on rainy and foggy days.
To address this problem, the ADAS solution utilizes artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), cloud and smart connectivity along with existing radar, LIDAR, cameras and sensors. The system keeps a constant watch on the drivers’ actions and behavior and provides them with alerts when they are drowsy. This solution looks at internal, external and environmental factors for a safer and enhanced driving experience.
Innovations taking place in edge computing platforms have made it easier to adopt ADAS solutions on mobile platforms and among the ADAS features are adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, parking assistance, lane departure warning and autonomous emergency braking.
SAE International, the leader in connecting and educating mobility professionals to enable safe, clean and accessible mobility solutions, classified the ADAS solution at Level 2—partial automation, where the human driver monitors the driving environment and intervenes when required—in its industry standard for driverless automation levels.
While carelessness, fatigue, overconfidence, speeding, influence of drugs and alcohol and breaking traffic rules have been among the top reasons behind road accidents across the world, global car manufacturing leaders have also been working on the safety of driverless or autonomous cars for passengers.
The safety challenge for the future of autonomous vehicles
Building a driverless car with automated driving capabilities that exceeds human driving performance is not easy. The challenges involved are abundant. These include other car detection, lane keeping, overtaking, parking, obeying traffic rules, interpretation of road signs, following navigation systems and more.
Overcoming these challenges involves the adoption of multiple technologies that are able to predict and assess risk at the same speed as humans, especially when encountering unexpected incidents or “edge cases”.
“When a robot driver encounters an edge case, it says, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’,” said Koosha Kaveh, CEO of Imperium Drive, which is using humans as remote operators for cars in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.
After a June 2022 crash in San Francisco left two people injured, General Motors (GM) recalled and updated software in 80 Cruise self-driving vehicles. The US safety regulators said the recalled software “incorrectly predicted” an oncoming vehicle’s path.
However, like in the case of the Stagecoach buses, automotive manufacturers and technology companies focusing on driverless cars will eventually deliver fully autonomous vehicles, or Level 5 on SAE International’s industry standard.