UK autonomous vehicle project studies human interaction with driverless car


The first trials of the UK government-backed Venturer autonomous vehicle (AV) research project have focused on a critical aspect in the field of self-driving technology: human reactions to sharing control with a driverless car.

The ‘handover’ – when the control of the car switches from human driver to autonomous mode – is one of the least studied aspects of this developing technology. However, the interaction between the human driver and the car is a vital component in taking the new technology forward to a stage where it can be safely and successfully deployed on public roads. The first trials tested drivers in a static simulator and in the Venturer driverless car, on private roads at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). Under controlled conditions at speeds up to 20mph (32km/h), participating drivers were first instructed in the use of the vehicle. Their reactions were measured in response to the instruction to switch to driverless mode and then to take back control of the car.

The data collected from these initial trials will be used to provide the groundwork for the next stage of testing and trials in the project. Tests next year will look at different road conditions, the AV emerging from junctions, maneuvering around roundabouts, and choosing appropriate gaps in traffic that make the occupants feel safe, without unnecessarily slowing down traffic or adding to emissions.

“In the long term, AVs can bring great benefits, but getting the user interface right is key,” explained Tony Meehan, consultancy director at Atkins. “Developing the technology and the skills needed to introduce something as radical as autonomous vehicles is crucial, but being at the forefront of this huge challenge is also about regulation, insurance, safety and maximizing their benefits. This project is trying to plug the gap between technology, the road network and the user. The research is looking at how users interact with an as-yet-unknown piece of kit, how they react when confronted with different situations and when confronted with a piece of kit that looks and feels very familiar, but is really radically different.”

Professor Graham Parkhurst of UWE Bristol noted, “The social and behavioral aspects of how AV technology is introduced are crucial to making a success of its potential. We need to understand the human and social interface in order to fully benefit from this as a society. So the research needs to help us understand if this technology could encourage people to travel in a different way. Is an AV more likely to be acceptable as a shared vehicle if none of the users is responsible for driving it? The really interesting questions around AV relate to transition. Many people might eventually like us all to end up with fully autonomous cars, but as the technology emerges, politicians, transport planners and road engineers will need to deal with a future of mixed conditions, where the road network will have to cater for AVs, as well as other road users.”

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About Author


Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).