Three-year study finds driverless cars safe to use in urban settings, with no accidents in 1,600 miles of testing

Researchers claim that a three-year study of “driverless” cars in south-east London has shown that they are safe to use in urban settings.

Nissan said there had been no accidents in 1,600 miles of testing near Woolwich, although it acknowledged that the commercialization of autonomous vehicles may still be years away.

Fully-electric Nissan Leaf vehicles were equipped with radar, GPS, roof cameras, and six computers in the book to help them safely navigate the streets.

Throughout the tests, an engineer was constantly in driving seat and ready to take over should something go wrong.

The £10.7 million ServCity project is thought to be the first to demonstrate that autonomous vehicles may change their course in “real time” in response to the presence or absence of other traffic.

On the 2.7-mile test circuit, which runs from the Woolwich ferry to the Plumstead bus garage, images and data from on-street cameras warned the car about problems up ahead. One of these might be a lane that is blocked by a bus that is parked, which enables the vehicle to “see round bends.”

A group that included the Transport Research Laboratory and Nottingham university conducted the testing out of the Smart Mobility Living Lab in Woolwich.

These included observing how pedestrians responded when an apparently driverless car stopped for them to cross the street.

On the car’s bonnet, an electronic sign flashed “I’m giving way” and an emoji with a happy face. The driver was hidden behind a fake front seat, meaning the pedestrians couldn’t see the driver.

In spite of a green signal granting motorists the right of way, during a test drive by the Evening Standard, the vehicle came to a stop when a group of people crossed the road in front of Woolwich’s Elizabeth line station.

Currently, only research reasons are allowed under UK law for the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads. On some German and Japanese roadways, they are allowed.

The researchers are hoping that an eagerly anticipated Government consultation opening the door for driverless vehicles will be released later this year.

The project’s goal is to make automotive transportation “cleaner, safer, and inclusive” by, for instance, enabling elderly or disabled persons who are no longer able to drive themselves to travel independently.

According to Matthew Ewing, vice president for vehicle engineering at Nissan’s European Technical Centre, it might also open the door to “robo taxi” services in rural areas that are underserved by public transportation.

Mr Ewing said: “The car can navigate many of the challenges that driving in London brings, from pedestrians crossing the road unexpectedly to coping with parked buses. It’s been very successful.

“What we are learning from this will be really helpful in developing our future products and eventually bringing these technologies to market.

“There are lots of benefits – primarily a big safety benefit. Well over 90 per cent of accidents with vehicles come down to some form of human error or lack of concentration.

“Having the technology on the car that is observing what is going on around the car all of the time, and being able to interpret that data and control the vehicle safely, should be able to significantly reduce accidents.”

He added: “From a research and advanced engineering point of view, it’s definitely a green light. From a technology point of view, it’s definitely ‘keep going’.”

Tristan Shale-Hester, of Auto Express, said: “It’s really impressive how smooth it was, the way it moved off on its own from traffic lights and dealt with obstructions in the road, and pedestrians and buses. It was certainly smoother than some taxi rides I’ve had in the past.”

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