Ireland and the Autonomous Vehicle Industry

Published on 22 October 2019

The top selling car brands in the world have been manufacturing autonomous vehicles for years, so it’s natural to wonder when driverless cars will reach our roads. To get an update on the progress and outlook for autonomous vehicles in Ireland, we spoke to industry expert Mr Donal Hodgins, for his informed opinion.

Mr Hodgins recently completed a two-year contract as Chief Specialist (Intelligent Transport Systems) with the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai. He worked on several self-driving transport projects and has been a Board Member of ITS Ireland for the past 9 years.

For the purpose of the interview, here’s a quick refresher of the levels of grading for autonomous vehicles, according to the RSA:

  • Level 0: No automation
  • Level 1: Driver assisted functions such as cruise control.
  • Level 2: Driver assisted systems that control speed and steering.
  • Level 3: Full automation in certain situations but driver may need to take control of the vehicle if specific conditions are present.
  • Level 4: Full automation in certain situations with no driver intervention required.
  • Level 5: Full driverless automation.

Q: Is Level 3 and 4 more realistic for our roads? When do you think they’ll introduced?

A: It’s important to take a look at the development to Level 3 and 4 autonomy. Level 1 is the first level of automation and such a vehicle has a single specific function of automation that assists the driver, for example, either speed or braking controls but not both. These are called Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) and are increasingly common in vehicles on the market in Ireland.

SAE Level 2 is reached when a vehicle is able to control both the steering and acceleration/ deceleration ADAS capabilities. This allows the vehicle to automate certain parts of the driving experience, but the driver remains in complete control of the vehicle at all times. It means that the "driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time," according to the SAE. Examples of Level 2 functions include lane departure warnings and self-parking features, which have more than one ADAS aspect.  Again, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are incorporating these as standard in their latest vehicles on the market.

Vehicles with Level 3 systems make informed decisions for themselves and can be classified as primarily using an automated driving system as opposed to a manual system. These decisions include overtaking moving vehicles but drivers are still necessary and must intervene if necessary. This level of autonomy is proving particularly challenging as the transfer of control from car to human, for example, poses psychological difficulties for a driver who has not had to pay attention until suddenly being required to take control of the vehicle. Some OEMs are looking to bypass Level 3 in preference to developing Level 4 and 5 systems in vehicles.

Level 4 is described as "fully autonomous." These vehicles are "designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip." The key difference between Level 3 and Level 4 automation is that vehicles with Level 4 are able to intervene if things go wrong or there is a system failure.  These vehicles are left completely to their own devices without any human intervention in the vast majority of situations but does not cover every driving scenario.
Test vehicles with Level 3/4 systems have been operating over the past number of years but we are several years (2030) away from seeing a majority of vehicles with such autonomy systems.  

Q: Do you think Level 5 autonomy is possible on our narrow, rural roads? If so, in what timeframe?

A: All technological advances follow an incremental improvement process. The development of self-driving technology follows an internationally accepted definition prepared by SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers), which determines the intelligence level and automation capabilities of vehicles, ranking through 0 to 5. These levels serve as general guidelines about how technologically advanced a vehicle is.

Level 5 autonomy is the optimum level of automation and vehicles do not require any human attention and are described as fully-autonomous. This means a vehicle that can drive anywhere in the world without any human intervention, whether on the left and/or right hand sides of the carriageway, off-road driving in a desert, along narrow rural roads or busy streets with pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. These vehicles will not feature typical driving controls such as steering wheels or pedals and the ‘driver’ will solely be the vehicle.

The timescale for their implementation is unknown. Some researchers believe that Level 5 autonomy has such significant challenges to overcome that widespread deployment may not be possible for decades.

Possibly the most interesting is the ethics of a fully autonomous vehicle in terms of avoiding a fatality, whilst not being able to avoid another consequential fatality. An example would be a vehicle which in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian on a crossing, can only swerve with the potential to injure the driver. These type of hypothetical presents a dilemma which needs to be fully examined.

Q: What kind of legislation is involved/required before introducing driverless cars to our roads?

A: There is a suite of legislation to be put in place to ensure that trials of autonomous cars can take place, and that’s before looking at permitting them on general sale. Examples of legislation would be laws to allow testing on motorways or testing in cities. Codes of practice for trialling of automated vehicles would provide a framework so that all stakeholders understand what is expected and required from them to test vehicles in live traffic. These can specify on what roads vehicles can be tested as well as details of the testing procedures and perhaps, whether a supervisor is required in the vehicle at all times.

Autonomous Driving forms part of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0). Other related areas which require legislation are the development of more sophisticated telecommunications networks (5G), other wireless communications, cognitive computing, data security and privacy, accountability and liability laws.

Q: Do you think they’ll be a big market for driverless cars in Ireland? 

A: According to the European Commission, autonomous driving is a major driving factor of automotive digitalisation. With a global economic potential of over EUR 100 billion revenue per year in connected vehicles equipment, the digitalisation of the automotive industry is set to radically transform our transport and mobility patterns.

The market for autonomous vehicles is a global one and whilst the cultural pattern of driving can vary from region to region, the regulatory goal of the reduction in road deaths will drive the introduction of more autonomous vehicles internationally.

Q: What departments and organisations in Ireland are working together to ready us for this new technology?

A: There are a number of Government Departments working in the area of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV). These include the Department of An Taoiseach and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport which have an interdepartmental working group set up to develop a CAV Roadmap for Ireland. The Road Safety Authority is developing CAV testing guidelines and Transport Infrastructure Ireland is preparing a CAV Strategy.

In addition, IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, Lero (The Irish Software Research Centre), ITS Ireland and Insight (The Irish Data Analytics Research Centre) has established a Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) Steering Group. The objective of this CAV Forum is to serve as a central platform to bring together stakeholders from across industry, academia, research, transport authorities and support agencies to discuss the topic of connected and autonomous vehicles and help build a CAV value proposition for Ireland. 

Q: Is Ireland liaising with any others countries (or modelling them) in preparation?

A: On a European level, Member States including Ireland and the European Commission, collaborate to achieve the EU's ambitious vision for connected and automated mobility in a Digital Single Market, taking into consideration stakeholders interests.
Policies and legislation relating to digital technology, including cybersecurity, liability, data use, privacy and radio spectrum/connectivity are of increasing relevance. These aspects need coordination at European level in order to ensure that a vehicle may remain connected when crossing borders. Indeed, Member States are also involved in various working groups on an international level as part of the Inland Transport Committee work for the UNECE based in Geneva.

Ireland’s finest industry, academia, research, transport authorities and support agencies are collaborating to ensure our steps towards introducing driverless cars to our roads are well informed and will keep pedestrians, cyclists and ‘drivers’ out of danger. Watch this space!

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