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George Economides
Team Leader, CAVs, Oxfordshire County Council

Merging self-driving cars with buses and bikes

Connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) are being tested on roads in complex urban, rural and highways environments – each with their unique challenges. At Oxfordshire County Council, we are pioneering the introduction of autonomous vehicles in our county for a variety of use cases – working with multiple stakeholders including transport providers, citizen engagement groups, traffic management officials and CAV innovators like Oxbotica on the DRIVEN project.

Much progress in this arena has focused on a bottom-up approach – developing the vehicles themselves. We are looking at this problem from the top down at Oxfordshire County Council, at how CAVs can be safely and equitably integrated with a balanced transport network. We are developing smart urban, peri-urban and rural environments, of which connected vehicles are just one part, along with healthy modes of transport. Connected infrastructure, including the Internet of Things (IoT) and digital infrastructure, are central to building these smart environments and can provide unprecedented insight into how these areas are performing and can be supported.

In doing this, we also want to minimise roadside clutter and long term maintenance costs, creating more liveable communities and making the best use of public funds. This practically means moving as much infrastructure in the cloud as possible. This will also allow better adaptability as the requirements change over time. There are several horror stories about local authorities having ‘like-for-like’ commercial arrangements that were agreed decades ago and cannot keep up with emerging needs. With a cloud-based data infrastructure, we can take location data collection and distribution to a higher level of abstraction than can be collected by an individual vehicle. This will allow for more consistent access to location data over much larger areas and better possibilities for analysis.

However, an online system relies on consistent, secure and efficient connectivity with road users, which is a challenge when low latency and/or high bandwidth is required. Especially when bridging urban, peri-urban and rural settings. Therefore, a combined approach that combines physical and digital infrastructure is required, depending on the information urgency. For example, a smart traffic light that communicates directly with the vehicle will have low latency, meaning both can react quickly in an emergency. Yet, this is only useful for vehicles in the immediate vicinity of the traffic light. Without the digital infrastructure to support the physical infrastructure, we would run the risk of building a ‘smart’ junction as part of a ‘dumb’ system.

Street in Oxford at night
Oxford is looking at how CAVs can be safely and equitably integrated with a balanced transport network.

Understanding the requirements for connected vehicles in smart environments involves classifying those environments. Urban, rural and highways are different domains when it comes to the interactions vehicles will have, their density, variety and speed of interaction. They also differ in terms of the infrastructure available to dictate and inform the action.

For instance, in urban environments, complex interactions take place at moderate speeds, while on highways, the interactions are of higher speed but less varied. In both of these cases, there is a reliable infrastructure to host these connections. This is not necessarily the case however for rural environments, where the infrastructure is not reliable, can change dramatically between events and interactions take place at high speeds. Considering that most road fatalities, car dependency and growth in freight deliveries are in rural areas, much of the benefits expected from CAVs will depend on the adoption in these areas.

It will be harder to roll out CAVs across the UK if we rely on individual communication between vehicles and infrastructure in each of these domains. For example, smart traffic lights that can communicate directly with vehicles may be expensive, not including signalised junctions etc. Councils across the UK won’t necessarily be able to afford these, resulting in different levels of service. That’s another reason we favour infrastructure that is more digital than physical. Drawing on cloud-based infrastructure will help to ensure equality

We have a long way to go to get to a future scenario of vehicles that can drive themselves anywhere, at any time – Level 5 driving automation. However, we are starting to see vehicles that can operate fully autonomously in specific domains with common features – Level 4. This is our aim for example with the DRIVEN and MULTICAV projects, both partly funded by CCAV and Innovate UK. 

A digital infrastructure that can support autonomous vehicles as they travel and interact in specific environments relies heavily on two things. The first is safe, secure and reliable connectivity; even 5G will need a fibre optic backbone to hit the data speeds we need for the safe rollout of CAVs. So many of the changes we’ll see in the coming years may take place under our roads, rather than on them, as fibre optics are installed.

The second is common data standards for reliable, accurate, up-to-date location data to be distributed. It is important that the provider of this data is trusted and neutral. That’s why the work Ordnance Survey are doing to enable connected environments is so important for the safe roll-out of CAVs.

Collaboration on the DRIVEN project is already yielding impressive results. We already have cars manoeuvring in complex urban environments safely – and that is with only limited digital infrastructure in place. So far, we have mainly been concentrating on the aspects of traffic management and traffic sensor fusion. The next step in enabling connected environments is building the cloud-based digital infrastructure to distribute location data safely and reliably to support autonomous vehicles across selected domains.

George Economides
By George Economides
Team Leader, CAVs, Oxfordshire County Council

Dr George Economides is Team Leader for CAVs at Oxfordshire County Council, the first council in the UK to include CAVs in their transport policy, master planning and to have a dedicated CAV team.