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Driverless cars: Is the North West ready for the autonomous revolution?

Driverless cars: Is the North West ready for the autonomous revolution?

Electric car ownership continues to rise and the government is hoping to have self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2021.

So how is the North West coping with the EV (electric vehicle) evolution and what can be done to ensure the region is ready for the onset of driverless transportation?

Words by Lawrence Saunders

19 November 2017: Chancellor Phillip Hammond tells the public they should expect to see driverless cars on UK roads by 2021.

His subsequent Budget included hundreds of millions of pounds for more electric charge points, 5G mobile networks and artificial intelligence, as well as a pledge to legislate for autonomous driving without a human at the wheel.

Some 15 months on, will residents in the North West be enjoying driver-free journeys in less than two years time?

Almost certainly not, but that doesn’t mean the notion is as far away as some may think.

Our American counterparts are, of course, a lot further along in this field, with Google and Uber’s similarly determined pursuits of commercialised autonomous travel much publicised.

Last December self-driving technology firm Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, launched its autonomous taxi programme to users in Phoenix, Arizona.

‘Early riders’ who took part in Waymo’s test schemes have been able to hail driverless cabs through an application on their mobile phones ever since.

Although a similar service here in the North West might be a way off yet, the wider region is starting to get serious about connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

Most recently the draft release of Transport for the North’s (TfN) Strategic Transport Plan (STP) featured several nods to the next generation.

The document confirmed TfN’s support for government policies and proposals to meet the UK’s legislated emission reduction targets, including a commitment to working with the private sector to support research and development of CAVs.

The STP, which outlined a £70 billion investment blueprint to revamp the North’s roads and rail network, also indicated plans to invest in EV charging points.

“AV will almost certainly be electric, so the North West should be thinking about how to ensure there is sufficient charging infrastructure across the region.”

Many commentators agree that if CAVs are to become commonplace on UK roads, easy access to electric charge points will be essential.

“AV (autonomous vehicles) will almost certainly be electric, so the North West should be thinking about how to ensure there is sufficient charging infrastructure across the region,” says Richard Threlfall, partner and global head of infrastructure at KPMG International.

“This will be particularly challenging in high density residential areas where on-street parking is the only option.”

According to the latest figures from electric charging point platform Zap-Map, only 7% of the 19,375 public connectors in the UK are located here in the North West.

The Greater Manchester Electric Vehicle scheme – the metropolitan area’s public electric vehicle charging network – boasts more than 300 of these with a further 48 rapid charging points set to be installed by September.

Meanwhile in the Liverpool City Region, Merseytravel’s EV public charging network, Recharge, has installed a total of 27 posts since 2014, and handed out grants for 26 workplace posts.

The executive body says it’s hopeful of further funding for the project this year to continue providing charging points throughout the area.

Equally critical to the widespread roll out of CAVs as EV charging points is dependable access to communications systems that offer both high data capacity and extensive coverage.

A fully autonomous vehicle navigating UK roads will require human-like reflexes and the ability to collect huge amounts of data on the fly.

It’s the opinion of many experts that this would mean nationwide super-fast 5G – the fifth generation of mobile networks.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport commissioned consultancy firm Atkins in August 2018 to carry out a 5G feasibility study exploring the benefits of increased investment in upgrading the connectivity of UK roads.


Driverless cars

Electric rail being installed in Sweden as part of eRoadArlanda project


Whilst a possible increase in the number of EV charging points and a mobile network viability report are steps in the right direction, North West roads aren’t likely to be flooded with CAVs anytime soon.

“It would be possible for the region to set itself at the forefront of the technology by investing now in particular corridors,” says Threlfall.

“[The corridors] could be covered by a combination of fibre optic cabling and short-range (DSRC) communications, perhaps with a view to establishing an AV truck corridor, for example, from the Port of Liverpool to the M6 motorway.”

Threlfall’s route would link-up neatly with the M6/M74 corridor which runs between Manchester and Glasgow, identified last year as the most commercially valuable stretch for driverless lorries in the UK.

According to transport information firm Inrix, haulage companies could boost profits by employing autonomous HGVs on the cross-border route because of its long distance and comparatively low levels of congestion.

Jonathan Moss, partner, global head of transport sector and head of marine and trade at multinational law firm DWF, expects driverless lorries will become more of a reality in the next five to 10 years.

“We’re in the midst of a new industrial revolution,” he says.

“There will be increasing electrification of roads and the focus on driverless and autonomous vehicles will be very difficult to ignore.

“The technological advancement is here and is sophisticated, but what’s holding infrastructure back is the laws which surround its implication.”

Moss, who spoke at the 2018 International Business Festival in Liverpool on the findings of DWF’s global transport technology report ‘Delivering the Goods’, concedes that the UK has a way to go before its roads are ready to facilitate a real automotive revolution.

“The technological advancement is here, but what’s holding infrastructure back is the laws which surround its implication.”

“We’re behind the curve,” he adds, highlighting a stretch of road outside of Stockholm where vehicles can be recharged as they move, as the benchmark.

Approximately 2km of electric rail has been installed between the Arlanda Cargo Terminal and the Rosersberg logistics area as part of the eRoadArlanda project.

Opened in April 2018, the electrified road, which is the first of its kind, functions by transferring energy from a rail in the road to vehicles via a movable arm.

Whilst our own futuristic highway is still a way off here in the North West, tests involving driverless vehicles will be taking place in the region later this year.

As part of Project Synergy, two types of autonomous examples will be trialled in Greater Manchester.

A trio of Pods on Demand (POD) will ship four to six passengers between the transport interchange and entrance to Terminal 2 at Manchester Airport.

Initially mobility groups will be consulted with to determine whether the vehicles would offer an improvement on their current travel options when accessing the airport.

Alongside the PODs trial, three electric sports cars will be tested between Stockport railway station and the airport.

With the vehicles operating autonomously in a convoy formation, the test will aim to determine whether ‘platooning’ could have a positive impact on congestion and energy/fuel use.

Taking place with partners including Westfield Technology Group, Conigital Ltd and Manchester Airport, the trials will begin in December and run through to January 2020.

“If people aren’t driving the vehicles they’ve got time to buy duty free or if they’re running late – check in for their flight,” explains John Paddington, senior project manager at Conigital, which is providing some of the supporting software for Project Synergy including a fleet management system and GEMMA – a virtual concierge for partially sighted and disabled users.

“We’re particularly targeting airports, hospitals and business parks because we see places like that as the early adopters,” he adds.

“They are more controlled [than open roads] and although it’s not necessarily easier, they are more manageable situations.”