Hands-free: AV Take the Wheel!

Written by Olivia Reddy, Masters student at BRL – Trial participant and Pod demonstration spectator.

Driverless cars have been in the news a lot over the past few years, and here in Bristol is one of the places you can find them. No, not on the roads just yet – but in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), a collaboration between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol. Researchers and engineers from BRL have been working as part of the VENTURER project in order to address two main aims: One, developing the technology in order to make autonomous vehicles; and Two, exploring how the public feel about it.

So far, the project has proved successful to the point where the technology is ready for the public to take a closer look. I’m one of the lucky ones who has been part of the public participation side of the trials so far, meaning that I’ve actually been driven by these driverless cars! At the beginning of July, I took part in VENTURER’s second trial on the UWE Frenchay campus where I was driven around a section of the campus in the VENTURER Wildcat. I also took part in the VENTURER Simulator trial inside the lab which simulated a drive around a virtual reality version of the same route.

But how does it feel? It’s a strange but exciting feeling being in the driver’s seat and watching the steering wheel move! The words ‘hands-free’ spring to mind. As part of the trial, I was asked to rate my feeling of trust towards the vehicle in a variety of different driving scenarios, for example when overtaking a stationary vehicle. All my ratings were higher than an eight out of ten because I felt very comfortable in the vehicle at all times. I think the best way I could describe my experience of being inside the Wildcat is: it’s just like jumping on any rollercoaster ride, there’s no driver and you don’t know what to expect, but you know it’s going to be safe and exciting.

At the start of August, the Wildcat, Twizy and Pod were all taken down to Millennium Square in the city centre of Bristol, as part of At-Bristol’s Festival of What if? . This was to see how the general public interact with AV on a wider scale. A large part of the square was coned off, allowing a safe space for the pod to drive in a figure-of-eight loop and allowing curious participants to take a ride.

Three of these participants were my parents and my brother, who were able to experience what it’s like to ride in an autonomous vehicle. Even my brother, who is a man of few words, said “that was pretty good” as he came out of the pod! My parents loved the experience, even though they felt a bit hesitant beforehand and had a few questions about it. My Dad even suggested that you could maybe improve people’s trust/confidence in the pod by installing a screen for passengers to watch where the vehicle is going, much like those in cars that have a re-view camera for parking. It’s aspects like this that should be considered when designing transport systems for the future.

Watching other members of the public see these driverless vehicles in a public setting was truly fascinating. Most people I spoke to seemed to love the idea of self-driving cars, especially after a long day of work or for short trips around town. I personally think that they’re pretty cool and rather exciting! It might take a while for more people to warm up to the idea, but I guess it all comes down to trust; and I for one trust them completely.