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Hands free: A look into  Scotland's autonomous vehicles industry

CAVForth is the UK's first autonomous bus service | Alamy

Hands free: A look into Scotland's autonomous vehicles industry

Scotland leads the way on the UK’s journey towards having ‘driverless’ vehicles

Change is always hard but when that change involves machines replacing humans at the wheel of a vehicle, a million questions on security, safety, suitability and efficacy come to mind.

Yet in 2019, Transport Scotland replaced the ongoing scepticism with a full-on appetite for the revolutionary technology as it announced its CAV (connected and autonomous vehicles) Roadmap – which stated the country was “open for business” in the automotive industry.

Sticking to its commitment, the government agency supported the CAVForth project – the UK's first autonomous bus service. The initiative was part of the UK Government’s £100m Intelligent Mobility Fund and set up a route connecting Edinburgh to Fife.

When anticipating this drive, some might envisage a journey engulfed by augmented reality features and flashing lights, Knight Rider-style. However, in reality, it is just a comfortable bus ride, with its most exciting feature being seats equipped with wireless chargers. “After two minutes the journey feels quite sedating and boring. No fireworks are going off,” Stagecoach innovation manager Steven Russell, tells Holyrood.

Stagecoach provides the service that drives over the Forth Bridge. Other partners behind the pioneering project are Alexander Dennis, Fusion Programming, Edinburgh Napier University and Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

 By processing live data at high speed, the bus is allegedly “safer than even the most experienced driver”. The CAVStar system allows the vehicle to perceive the world around it, allowing it to operate through complex driving environments.

 The LIDAR framework sends lasers to detect objects while its RADAR analyses objects, speed and helps the vehicle operate under adverse conditions. HD cameras at each side of the bus read road signs and differentiate objects. A GPS in the roof combines satellite data with an internal map to help it locate itself in space.

A change thought to be a step into the future is also surprisingly one into the past. Human contact is often classed as collateral damage of the ongoing tech transformation. However, CAVForth has allowed the role of the bus conductor to make a return, aiming to see a 20 per cent improvement in customer experience. Run by a driver and a captain, the latter takes fares, speaks to passengers, explains the journey, and resolves any queries they might have about the service.

“If the computer is driving, staff members have more time to focus on the passengers have a chat with people, and for some, the bus driver is the only person they see all day, so being able to take the time out in the local community to do that should be a very positive impact on customer experience,” says Russell.

Discussing the safety procedures, James Wilson, head of concepts and advanced engineering at bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis, tells Holyrood how everything has a "backup".

"If something goes wrong with any of the systems from a technical perspective the vehicle will drive itself into a safe area and do a minimal risk manoeuvre. Essentially, this means that the bus can make decisions on its own and fully drive itself all the time”, he says.

However, he acknowledges this framework is different to what we can expect to come from recent UK Government announcements, which earlier this year said that by 2025 “we will begin to see deployments of self-driving vehicles”, with 40 per cent of cars possibly having autonomous capabilities by 2035. The first leap in this strategy was giving the green light to Ford’s Mustang Mach-E – Europe’s first hands-free car in motorways – yet the car only allows for partial self-driving, two levels below that of CavForth on the automation scale.

 This increase in technology in road networks has raised concerns over the white shark of the digital era: cyber-security. With over two million cyber-crime instances in the UK every year, including the recent attack on the Ministry of Defence, which saw numerous documents leaked, a focal concern lies on the security of a system with connectivity at its core.

 “CAV takes cyber to a whole new level because the potential attacks in terms of getting access to vehicles and controls are A, more critical and B, there's more of them. It could be in certain cases more prone to intervention by malicious actors,” admits Wilson

“Transparency is key”, he continues, as he coins knowing who sources the parts, controls the data coming from the vehicles, and who could eventually remotely control them as “really important”.

“It’s like your Windows update in a way. You need to make sure you always have the latest software. That's why it's not just buying a vehicle any more. You must buy a vehicle and be able to have a subscription to know that you've got the latest vulnerabilities addressed within it,” he adds. 

However, speaking to Holyrood, John McDermid, a member of the UK Government's Expert Advisory Panel for the CAVPASS programme – a process for assuring the safety of these vehicles – admits cyber-security is not the biggest challenge.

“To be honest, my biggest concern is more about managing the whole spectrum of activities so what happens when you have a tyre burst or somebody gets their coat caught in the door when the door closes? It is all these eventualities you must deal with,” he says.

“You have to design the vehicle, so it adapts to the weather conditions. Humans would naturally do that. You have got to design the system so it can detect it is in a fog and be able to recognise its ability to perceive things is reduced and that therefore it needs to modulate the speed,” he says.

Yet, looking at the other side of the debate, with human error accounting for more than 90 per cent of collisions, autonomous vehicles also have the potential to make roads significantly safer.

In 2021, real-life research by Google-owned Waymo revealed its automotive vehicles (AV) could near-eliminate all deaths caused by two-car crashes as machines do not get tired, distracted by a call, or make the irresponsible decision to drink and drive.

However, researchers acknowledge available data on the impact the revolution will have on overall security remains too limited to make a solid conclusion.

Autonomous vehicles could also bridge gaps that have left public transport facing a cliff-edge. With almost 64,000 homes having no regular public transport services – according to an analysis by the BBC – and an ongoing driver shortage, bus operators are in the midst of a crisis. Also, their reputation for being non-reliable in remote areas has grown stronger over the last few years.

Autonomous public transport could be the solution to those stranded at bus stops hoping services will arrive while also removing a strain from the overstretched system.

“Part of that (connectivity) is about being clever with route planning. So, doing dynamic route scheduling and having a series of routes served by a single bus to maximise that patronage and make it more commercially viable,” comments Wilson.

Similarly, machine-powered transport's unilateral approach to driving may also involve a surge in efficiency, making the industry a significant ally against climate change.

Scotland plans to reach net zero by 2045. Taking that transport is the biggest polluting sector in the country, accounting for 36 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, professionals believe self-driving vehicles could help catalyse the transition.

 “I suppose that a computer should drive more efficiently. We can expect a 20 per cent reduction in fuel usage, just because of the variance across our drivers,” Russell explains.

 Despite Brexit, the UK has committed to align with Euro 7 emissions standards, which sets the framework on vehicle emissions – and as a reserved transport matter, Scotland must follow suit. AV’s potential for “more consistent and smoother rides” could make it more “easily compliant” with the legislation – to be introduced mid-2025 – as it is expected to include things like brake and tyre wear, Stefan Baguette, marketing communications manager at Alexander Dennis explains.

 McDermid also calls for a need for legislation to be "harmonised" yet warned on the need to consider differing cultural expectations across countries.

“There are European Union activities in this space, and I think what we do in the UK should be as harmonised as possible with that. Simply because, you know, the cost of engineering to different standards around the world is quite high.

“But the acceptability of this technology is a cultural and social thing., I think the Americans are more accepting of that sort of experimentation on their roads as the death rate on the roads is much worse than it is here. So, I think the UK needs to put in place-appropriate regulations, for the level of risk that people in this country will tolerate”, he explains.

The issue was recently adressed in the King’s speech, where King Charles said new legislation will be introduced “to support the safe commercial development of emerging industries”, including self-driving vehicles.

The autonomous transformation progress has not been without challenges. A supply chain that “isn’t mature enough,” says Russell, along with a lack of public awareness, has become a handicap for the revolutionary innovation.

“There are some components that you potentially need to make the bus drive itself, make itself safer, to engineer in full system redundancy, that doesn't exist yet. So, one of the challenges is working with suppliers further down the chain to engineer solutions,” Russell adds.

It is concern shared by Wilson who says: “The steering system, the braking system, and the powertrain control are all quite new. There are not many source suppliers to Alexander Dennis that are ready with the technology to deploy a connected autonomous vehicle.”

Also, to date, digital transformation has been a costly and uneven journey, with battery-powered vehicles being a service that more marginal operators cannot afford, both capital and risk-wise.

However, Wilson claims that CAV could balance this as it “has the potential to make the whole service a lot more economically viable and therefore make it more profitable for these smaller independent companies”.

Addressing concerns on the potential risk of job losses many associate with the AI takeover, a Transport Scotland spokesperson tells Holyrood:

“The work to date on this project has highlighted that the role of staff on board remains vital. We will ensure that CAV innovations support the outcomes that we want for Scotland and that they do not exacerbate existing challenges so that we continue to promote equality, health and well-being and take climate action throughout the transport system”.

Although the automation transformation is still in its early stages, “there is a real appetite for this very specialist area”, says Russell.

 Moving forward the CAVForth project will start delivering services to Dunfermline city centre with plans to launch similar projects across the UK.

 Project managers hope that eventually, operators will manage vehicles remotely from a station, where they could control multiple buses at once.

 “It’s not achievable to fly to the moon in one day, you must take small leaps. We see the market growing quite substantially for autonomous vehicles over the next, five to 10 years. This is the future of transport”, Wilson concludes. •

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