The Trans-Am car that was used as KITT, an autonomous car in a 1980s television show

The Floow of traffic is about to change forever

Exclusive interview with Dr Sam Chapman, of The Floow, about autonomous cars and intelligent transport systems of the future   

Dr Sam Chapman, chief innovation officer, The Floow
Dr Sam Chapman, chief innovation officer, The Floow

You might think driverless cars are a long way off, and anyway you wouldn’t even dream of even getting into one let alone allow one to drive you somewhere. Perhaps you’re a control freak. It’s a widely known fact that people who have phobias such as a fear of flying suffer these maladies mainly because they get stressed out when they’re not in control, especially at times when their life is at stake.

Most people probably reacted with some incredulity to pictures on the news media about five years ago of Google’s first driverless cars. They looked like your everyday family cars, except they looked as if they’d been pimped up by Frank Spencer, with what looked like glorified car radios stuck to the roof and on the dashboard, probably with sticky tape. 

Given that it was Google, there was probably a general understanding that these were the most advanced telemetric devices in existence, with additional computing abilities that enabled it to control the mechanics and movements of the vehicle. Nonetheless, like most people, I was wary of the whole idea of being driven around by a car, no matter how good the technology. I have been driving many types of cars for almost 30 years, and just the idea of being in a car in which no human was in control was just too strange an idea to accept.

If anything, they put me off the whole idea of autonomous cars to the point that I completely forgot about Knight Industries Two Thousand (KITT), the talking Trans-Am sports car that was the centrepiece of the classic 1980s television series which made David Hasselhoff famous – Knight Rider. KITT was one of the first autonomous or “self-driving” cars the wider public became familiar with.

The Trans-Am car that was used as KITT, an autonomous car in a 1980s television show
The Trans-Am car that was used as KITT, an autonomous car in a 1980s television show

A few years have passed since Google’s demonstration, and I’ve had time to recall KITT. Now I’m not entirely sure I would completely reject the idea of driverless cars. But it would take a few more years and a lot more information about the technology for me to be persuaded.

Luckily, cars lacking human drivers are some years away.

But while traffic jams featuring lots of empty cars may not be seen for at least a decade, the autonomous car industry itself is already upon us, according to Dr Sam Chapman, chief innovation officer, co-founder and a director of The Floow, a specialist provider of state-of-the-art telemetry devices – which have a similar function to what black boxes have on planes.

“The market for autonomous vehicles is already here today, not 10 or 20 years away,” says Dr Chapman. “I strongly believe this market has already started. Already a prime factor in most car purchases is the sophistication of the electronics and its interface to the driver.

“Autonomous braking has been seen to be hugely effective in taking control away from drivers in critical conditions and is featured across an increasing number of makes and models with discussions in the EU concerning whether to mandate its inclusion in all new models on the market.

“As this technology progresses, more and more control will be possible to safely automate. However, the technology itself is not the bottleneck in progress.

“Currently the largest barriers to widespread adoption are end-user acceptance and how to gain regulator approval who both require evidence of safety and acceptance of these new technologies. The key to this is robust testing and validation mechanisms for new technology.”

Dr Chapman’s comments are a key insight into a trend that makes the widespread adoption of fully autonomous cars almost inevitable – the increasing level of autonomous features already inside the cars currently on the road, the most well-known feature being autonomous emergency braking (AEB).

Euro New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) is probably Europe’s premier car safety organisation. It’s backed by several European governments, including the UK, as well the European Union.

On its website, Euro NCAP says autonomous emergency braking systems improve safety in two ways. “Firstly, they help to avoid accidents by identifying critical situations early and warning the driver; and secondly they reduce the severity of crashes which cannot be avoided by lowering the speed of collision and, in some cases, by preparing the vehicle and restraint systems for impact.”

Because of the accelerating interest and investment in autonomous vehicle technology, Euro NCAP is looking into a number of safety issues. Recently it conducted a series of tests to check how well cars with autonomous emergency braking systems detect pedestrians.

euro ncap autonomous emergency braking tests
Euro NCAP tests how well autonomous emergency braking detects with pedestrians

Euro NCAP’s secretary general, Dr Michiel van Ratingen, says: “These new tests are the first in the world to assess highly automated vehicle features and driver assistance systems from the pedestrian’s perspective.

“Many new cars now offer some form of AEB system that can help prevent car-to-car collisions, but only some are also able to detect pedestrians. By checking the results on Euro NCAP’s website, consumers will be able to verify manufacturers’ safety claims and choose the right AEB option.”

Just to be clear, Euro NCAP was not testing fully autonomous cars, but that would be the obvious next step in the not-too-distant future.

For the time being, motorists and pedestrians are stuck with human drivers, some of whom can be irresponsible and inconsiderate when behind a steering wheel, sometimes risking people’s safety and even lives. And of course there’s the straightforward accidents that are the result of carelessness, or the plain unavoidable. There are many different reasons for accidents, but one common perception about them is that a disproportionate number of them are caused by young drivers who just recently passed their test.

This perception is probably unfair to the majority of young drivers, who may drive safely. Then there’s the other unfortunate group of safety conscious drivers who have to pay higher insurance premiums because they live in a postal code where a relatively high number of accidents occur.

But, says Dr Chapman, with telemetric devices installed in cars, these old perceptions are gradually being updated with real data.

“The Floow work worldwide with leading insurers to provide telematics systems that not only help calculate premiums but also help educate drivers in better driving based on how each vehicle has actually moved.

“These advances in technology help drivers across all ages that have adverse rating conditions affecting traditional policy prices.

“For example, young drivers but also those with poor credit ratings, in problematic postcodes, no driving history, or limited usage of a vehicle. Such individuals benefit greatly from telematics as they get discounted insurance based on how they actually drive rather than assuming a traditional worst case scenario which makes good drivers pay for the faults of others.

“Telematics, at its heart, makes insurance fairer.”

analogue tachograph
An analogue tachograph from a Mercedes coach, dating back more than 10 years

Some say telematics technology can be traced back to the tachograph more than 60 years ago. Others say the word “telematics” comes from the French “télématique”, first used in the late-1970s by Simon Nora and Alain Minc when describing a computerised society which features integrated and intelligent transport systems.

Telematics systems are part of, and incorporate, a range of technologies, such as the global positioning system, for example, but primarily a telematics device is mostly thought of as something that records the mechanical and electrical operations of the car.

But what extra information will these devices need to collect to deal with the increasing levels of automation within current “human-driven” cars and, in the future, completely driverless cars? What are the challenges in developing such systems?

Dr Chapman explains. “Telematics systems collect very regular data about the movement of a vehicle which already provides feedback on the safety of drivers, but they currently can say much less about relative behaviour to others on the road as the sensors utilised do not ‘see’ other vehicles and obstacles surrounding the vehicle.

“Cars however are already becoming more sophisticated with advanced sensing capabilities in the form of autonomous breaking and parking assistance functionalities which better detect the surrounding world around a vehicle to enable safer operation.

“Driverless technology is an extension of these senses such that they extend to the point that automated approaches can use improved sensing to safely provide suitable input into a vehicle’s decision systems.

“Currently, however, the optimal approach for input into a vehicle decision system is not fully explored and differing manufacturers and technology solutions are adopting differing approaches.

“The real challenge in this is doing enough testing and evaluation on real roads to clearly understand the best and safest means to understand surroundings and automate control.”

Dr Chapman’s company, The Floow, was recently awarded some funding from the UK government to develop telematics technology in preparation for a future where autonomous cars are everywhere, driving themselves and their pet humans around within an intelligent transport system.

The company was part of a consortium – called MOVE_UK – which included such companies as Bosch, Jaguar Land Rover and Direct Line, among others.

Consortium of automotive companies wins £5.5m fund to trial driverless cars on UK roads

The Floow’s telematics will allow the consortium to compare the behaviour of the autonomous vehicle to that of a human driver in the same real world environment.

Meanwhile, in the US, transport authorities have apparently accepted that Google’s autonomous driving software – or cars, or robots, or whatever you want to call it/them – is a driver, and will be treated just like a human driver. Google, for its part, has launched a website that attempts to make sitting in a car that drives itself look like the most natural thing in the world.

google car
Google has been leading the way towards a future with autonomous vehicles

The legal and philosophical implications of a machine being treated in law the same way as a human will have to wait for another time, but some debate will surely ensue after the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicated that it has given in to Google’s argument that the artificial intelligence in control of its car was more or less human.

“We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a driver in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years,” wrote Paul Hemmersbaugh, chief counsel at the NHTSA, in the letter to Google. “If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the driver as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.”

The UK has yet to deal with the legal implications of giving AI the same status as human drivers – its primary concern is to make sure that the country is not left behind in the technological race. The government has set aside £100 million to fund autonomous car research and development. It was from this budget that it awarded £5.5 million to the MOVE_UK consortium.

Dr Chapman says the UK is ready to compete globally. “The UK is well positioned and is one of the leading nations in autonomous technology. This is helped not only by funding from the UK and EU but by widespread support from the UK government that has passed specific legislation to help support the testing and early adoption of truly driverless vehicles on the UK’s roads.

“This high-level support and leading technical innovation helps development in the UK to stay ahead in key areas of innovation, whereas other nations/states are more limited in the trials that can be done.

“The UK in my view has strong capability to excel in particular in the validation/testing/decision systems/supporting data and new sensor technologies. What is clear, however, is that solutions to driverless cars will require a global supply chain which ensure the UK a key part in the future of mobility.”

Of course, driverless cars cannot work properly in isolation. They need a network, they need infrastructure. And while £100 million sounds like a lot of money, is it really enough to build an environment in which human drivers and AI drivers can live happily with pedestrians?

intelligent transport systems
Cities of the future will increasingly feature intelligent transport systems

What kind of network or environment do autonomous cars need? Do they need sensors in the road, or widespread vehicle-to-infrastructure technology? What type of skills are going to be needed to create all this?

Dr Chapman gives his view. “Driverless cars can of course operate better in specially constructed and constrained environments with dedicated sensors, digital markers and infrastructure that can communicate and inform a vehicle to better operate in any specific local setting.

“However, the cost of providing such networks is prohibitive across all roads in the world and the question would remain who would pay for this adoption.

“The more likely direction driverless technology will take is that it may in part use intelligent communications from the road architecture. However, as it will never be reliant on this, driverless vehicles must be able to operate based entirely on the sensors and decision making systems built into the vehicle without any reliance on external architecture. This of course needs extensive and evolutionary trials to refine current technologies.

“The skills needed for the future are those in large data, analytics, sensor understanding and computing rather than the traditional engineering focus of the automotive industry.

“The Floow is actively exploring these areas by bringing these new skills and unique data into the advancement of this technology this work has led to the funding of the £5.5M MOVE_UK project working with Jaguar and Bosch to focus activities upon data collection and analytics for future validation of driverless technology.”

Meanwhile, as usual, the US is going large. President Barack Obama has proposed spending $4 billion over the next decade to make autonomous cars a reality of modern life as soon as possible.

“We are bullish on automated vehicles,” says US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Automated vehicles open up opportunities for saving time, saving lives and saving fuel.”

Sounding a world away from a sceptic, Mr Foxx seems to think autonomous cars are some sort of panacea, even predicting that they will solve the problem of “explosive population growth”, according to Wall Street Journal.

I still don’t trust them.