The next big proving ground for self-driving cars isn’t in Detroit or in Silicon Valley

“This tech will make fender benders a thing of the past”
“This tech will make fender benders a thing of the past”
Image: Jaguar Land Rover
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Motorists on a 41-mile stretch of public road in the UK may soon be sharing lanes with self-driving cars. Roads around the English city of Coventry and a neighboring town called Solihull are set to become a “living laboratory” for a consortium of companies, research and government bodies, to test technologies that increase connectivity and autonomy in cars. Jaguar Land Rover, Vodafone, Siemens and Huawei, are among the participating companies.

New equipment will be installed along the route to enable up to 100 cars to transmit data at high speeds with each other and the motorway’s infrastructure. The goal: to share data efficiently in order to improve traffic flow and increase safety while the cars are changing lanes or exiting a highway. The cars won’t all be driverless all the time, but the scale of the project already pits it as a major investment in a future of autonomous driving. In comparison, Google currently has 23 self-driving cars on public roads; 18 in California and five in Texas, according to stats from the tech company (PDF). Google says it has logged 1.4 million self-driven miles in its vehicles to date.

The project, known as UKCITE (for UK Connected Intelligent Transport Environment) has a budget of £5.5 million ($7.9 million), funded by a government grant and the participating companies. It will operate for the next two-and-a-half years. Jaguar says it will have five research vehicles plying the route over the coming months.

One technology in particular, known as Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control, would allow cars to follow one another in close formation to form a “platoon,” without requiring input from their drivers. This allows the space on the road to be used more efficiently, according to Jaguar Land Rover. Another technology being touted for Coventry’s roads are “Over The Horizon” warning systems. These rely on cars passing information down the line to alert other cars of a possible hazard, or the arrival of an emergency vehicle that’s equipped with the relevant software and hardware. This prepares drivers, and their cars, well in advance of approaching an accident site.

These features are in line with the Jaguar Land Rover’s research goals to provide a high degree of autonomy in its vehicles in some situations. Research chief Wolfgang Epple has said the firm, a British subsidiary of India’s Tata Motors, would “never” produce a driverless car.

The UKCITE project is one of eight related to autonomous driving announced by the UK government today (Feb. 1). The UK’s transport secretary has positioned the projects as a “landmark moment” for the country in its bid to gain a leadership position in the autonomous car industry.

The UK needs to step up its efforts if it’s serious about taking the lead. Germany, the Netherlands and Austria are mid-way through a project that will allow cars across the three countries to share information with road-side sensors and receive alerts about hazards. In Detroit, cars already share data with road infrastructure along a 20-mile stretch of highway rigged with sensors and cameras. That project, run by the Michigan Department of Transportation in partnership with carmakers like Ford, is meant to aid drivers with real-time information about road conditions.

The US and Japan are currently seen as leaders in driverless car technology, by providing the legal framework for autonomous vehicles, and for deploying connectivity technologies, respectively, according to a report by EPoSS (PDF), a trade body that coordinates policy and research on car automation technologies. The UK’s new raft of projects are badly needed if it’s ever going to overtake the race leaders.