An increasing amount of driving tasks are being automated. This process has been going on for many years but the momentum behind these changes is becoming greater now that full automation of all driving tasks looks like it could be a realistic proposition.

Significant money has been invested in the race to manufacture the first fully automated vehicle from traditional auto manufacturers, new entrants into the market and technology firms.

As vehicles - in particular cars - have developed more of the driving tasks have been removed from the control of the driver. Modern cars have a series of automatic functions that most drivers now take for granted, such as automatic starters, cruise control, gearboxes and wipers. This trend has been occurring throughout the 20th century and is now reaching a point where it is feasible to predict the removal of the need for a human driver. Doing so could profoundly change the way that we use and view a car. 

There is, however, no doubt that complete automation would be a significant step forward for road safety as 94 per cent of traffic accidents happen due to human error. These mistakes could be eliminated by a fully automated vehicle fleet. Automation is currently an innovative and fast-moving area of technological development.

Research undertaken as part of the Gateway project in Greenwich, which exposes members of the public to operational automated vehicles, indicates 78 per cent support for the idea of driverless vehicles on urban streets, “provided they are safe and resistant to cyber attack”.

The research also found that 43 per cent felt positive towards the concept of driverless vehicles but 46 per cent were undecided. Recent fatal accidents involving automated cars are likely to impact public acceptability. You can find more information on the latest UK automation projects and trials at the Centre for Connected and Autonomous vehicles. There is also more information on innovative projects developing transport technology at the Transport Catapult.

It is worth reflecting on this as two divergent trends and noting there is currently disagreement on whether the trend towards increasing but not complete automation makes vehicles safer. If humans are required to take control of a vehicle at short notice after a prolonged period of automated driving it can take some time for the driver to fully engage with driving and process what is going on. 

There is significant academic behavioural research showing that the human brain is not well suited to switching between long periods of low concentration and stimulation to immediately assess the amount of information required to take control of a moving vehicle. This is a barrier that technology will need to overcome with either the switch to one hundred per cent automated driving or the development of a means for automated cars to stop safely in an emergency without human input.