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How can a city welcome driverless cars?

Mirror, signal, robot

By Kevin O’Malley  

Read more of Prospect’s “Data as infrastructure” report

The reality of driverless cars on UK roads is closer than you might think. The technology required for cars to drive themselves in simple scenarios has already been used. Self-parking, lane-centering, adaptive cruise control and automatic braking are already common features of mid-priced vehicles. But most of the barriers to adoption are down to people’s perceptions of how autonomous digital vehicles might respond to the analogue unpredictability of the real world.

The rewards of implementing this technology could be huge, not only by improving air quality and congestion, but also because it offers individuals who can’t drive—including some people with disabilities—access to independent personal transport. This is why Bristol is exploring some of these new ideas.

Bristol was named as a Leading Smart City in the Huawei Smart Cities Index 2016. This came after more than a decade of digital projects aimed at improving the life of Bristol’s citizens.

The city council, in partnership with the University of Bristol, has created an Open Programmable smart city research and development infrastructure, through which emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles can be developed.

This infrastructure is known as “Bristol Is Open.” It is what’s known as a Software Defined Network (SDN) and it is made up of an array of ultra-fast fibreoptic data links across the city. There is also a wireless mesh “canopy of connectivity” which operates from 1,500 lamp posts and a mile-long stretch of wireless connectivity along Harbourside. This network also benefits from access to powerful assets such as a Blue Crystal II supercomputer at Bristol University, which provides additional processing power to the network, and links to a 98-seat “Data Dome.” This is a unique, hemispherical viewing arena with an ultra-high-resolution screen, capable of generating virtual reality images, or displaying complex representations of scientific experiments.

Two driverless vehicle trials are currently underway in the Bristol region; Venturer and Flourish. The projects are being run by a wide range of organisations, including South Gloucestershire Council, University of Bristol, Atkins, Age UK, BAE, and the Transport Systems Catapult.

Venturer has been operating since 2015 and is focused on how passengers, other road users and pedestrians respond to autonomous vehicles in increasingly complex scenarios. Members of the public were recently invited to view and ride in an autonomous pod during a three-day open event in Bristol’s Millennium Square. Work is also being conducted in parallel to unpack the insurance and legal implications of increased vehicle autonomy.

The Venturer project is using a detailed 3D map of Bristol to develop an understanding of how passengers respond to the autonomous driving experience.

The Flourish project has been running for a year and aims to develop more user-centric autonomous vehicles. The project is trying to get a clear picture of consumer demands and expectations, and part of this work involves assessing the challenges and opportunities that autonomous vehicles bring to our ageing society. This new technology could help older people to keep their independence and social connections beyond the age at which they would stop driving a conventional car, (an irony is that the older generation, who would benefit most from this new technology, might be the least inclined to take it up.) Flourish will work to overcome this aversion by trying to find ways of making journeys feel more natural and acceptable.

It will also be exploring the cyber security implications of data communication between vehicles and the infrastructure that guides them. These issues are shared with many Smart City projects which generate and use enormous volumes of sensitive or critical data. Current estimates suggest that the average autonomous vehicle will generate 4,000 gigabytes of data every day, the equivalent of around one million MP3 files.

It’s the volume and complexity of this data that make the “Bristol is Open” network so useful for testing the capability and vulnerabilities of future technologies such as autonomous transport. And while the tech developers iron out problems encountered by operating their vehicles in the real world, the council and the public can see the technology in operation—anything that makes the technology seem more every-day is a good thing.

But it’s not only the hi-tech developers who get the benefits of the new, smart city. The council has begun to provide data to citizens, communities and businesses through the newly launched open data platform. Here people can access and employ any of the growing number of data sets to create the sorts of apps, services and visualisations which make sense to them.

Increasingly smart cities aren’t just about deploying the kit and moving the data around. They are about creating the environment in which citizens and public bodies can work together.


On the 3rd of October, Prospect launched Data as Infrastructure. This special report grew out of a series of high-level roundtable meetings over the summer which brought together government, private businesses and the third sector to look at how data is already being used to improve people’s lives and how it has the potential to do so much more.

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