Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers

On Wednesday 7th March my colleague, Imogen, and I attended an event aimed at encouraging primary school children to be involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects and to consider a career in engineering. The event was held at the University of the West of England and is part of a project being run by the university’s Department of Education and Childhood and the Department of Engineering, Design and Mathematics. The Exhibition and Conference Centre played host to 380 primary school children from nine schools from Bristol and South Gloucestershire for the morning.

There was a huge range of activities and demonstrations for the children to engage with, ranging from building bridges using large foam blocks and flying drones to exploring infrared temperature sensors. The children visited the different activities in groups of around 10 and rotated throughout the morning. All of the activities on offer gave the children a flavour of the many different aspects to a career in engineering.

Only 5% of primary school teachers have a science-related degree[1], and research has found that children, especially girls, develop their attitude towards STEM as a possible career before the age of 11[2] – facts like these form the central argument for why events like this are being run.

Robotics in particular has been identified as being effective in STEM teaching, as it enforces the physical concepts of engineering and technology and helps to remove some of the abstractness of mathematics and science[3]. To enforce this point, we brought the robotic ‘Twizy’ vehicle to the event and allowed the children to explore the vehicle.

The ‘Twizy’ (pictured below) is a passenger vehicle manufactured by Renault, which has been adapted by one of the VENTURER partners, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, to be remotely controlled. The Twizy can operate in standard controlled mode and can also be operated using a handheld controller.

When the children were exploring the Twizy, we initiated discussions about Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) by asking them questions regarding their trust in driverless technology, when they think CAV technology will be widely available and what they think some of the barriers to CAV adoption might be. Broadly the children were very trusting when thinking about operating a driverless vehicle, but were slightly less trusting of the technology from the perspective of a cyclist or pedestrian. Some great discussions were taking place, with themes like responsbility for crashes and the appropriateness of driving tests being talked about, which are discussion points being discussed by CAV experts.

STEM outreach and primary school engagement is an important activity for pioneering and innovative industry projects to undertake. Allowing these children to see industry-leading technology being tested and trialled in Bristol and South Gloucestershire should help to inspire them to work on similar projects in the future. Projects like VENTURER, which work alongside academic partners, should exploit their progressive credentials to encourage children to go into engineering. This event allowed VENTURER to engage with Bristol’s future professionals and hopefully has opened their eyes to the possibility of a career in the CAV industry.


Bella Slawin – Atkins


[1] Royal Academy of Engineering 2016

[2] Fogg-Rogers et al., 2017

[3] Kim et al., 2015’_STEM_Engagement_Learning_and_Teaching/links/5787986208aedc252a935ea7/Robotics-to-Promote-Elementary-Education-Pre-service-Teachers-STEM-Engagement-Learning-and-Teaching.pdf

Trial 3 – A Participant’s View

During the months of January and February, VENTURER is undertaking the third and final phase of a series of human factors experiments. Trial 3 is being held at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, involving examining human reactions to the decisions made by an Autonomous Vehicle (AV) at junctions, crossings and overtaking parked cars on link roads. Unlike previous trials as well as interacting with conventional motor vehicles, it is also interacting with pedestrians and cyclists.

Participants in Trial 3 comprise of three different groups. One third are pedestrians who regularly make local journeys on foot and they have been asked to either walk to the trial or to come by public transport and complete their journey on foot. One third are regular cyclists who arrive at the trial on their bike. The final group are drivers with a range of driving experience. All of the participants are engaged in a series of repeated scenarios with the Wildcat autonomous vehicle in the ‘real world’ and the VENTURER Simulator and are asked to rate their ability to trust the decisions made by the vehicles.

The drivers experience the scenarios from within the Wildcat, whereas the pedestrians and cyclists observe the same events from the outside on the footways. In the simulator all participants are in the vehicle and rate their trust in the autonomous simulated vehicle as they encounter the same scenarios as in the Wildcat. Additionally, two-thirds of the participants are also asked to rate their trust in a driver when the car is driven manually.

The scenarios were designed to mirror the experiences of everyday situations on UK roads and included overtaking a parked vehicle with an oncoming cyclist, crossing a zebra crossing and turning right into a junction while detecting passing cyclists and crossing pedestrians, taking the appropriate action as required.

It is expected that the findings from Trial 3 will help to inform future research around Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ (CAVs) abilities to integrate with other traffic on UK roads, including more vulnerable users such as people on foot and cyclists.

Two of the participants that have taken part in Trial 3 are Miriam, who has been making local journeys on foot for more than 20 years and Luke, a young driver with four and a half years’ experience.

Both Miriam and Luke expected CAV’s to be safer, with fewer accidents. Miriam added that “they will possibly encourage people not to have private cars, but to make it more of a shared thing, especially if people begin to think of transport in a different way.”

On the subject of safety, Luke noted that “when the driverless car approached crossing pedestrians and cyclists its speed and stopping distances were more appropriate than many drivers on the roads”. Miriam expressed that she felt very safe in the driverless car and the trial made her realise how unsafe she has felt at times when being driven by others.

As someone who has never owed or driven a car Miriam said that she would probably not like to own an AV, but “I would probably use them if they became part of public transport”. Luke, a professional musician, could see himself either owning or using a driverless car as it: “would definitely be better than having the responsibility of being behind the wheel myself. It would also be useful getting back from late night gigs and if you wanted a drink it would still drive you home.”

Although they were willing to embrace CAVs, both trial participants acknowledged that there are a number of barriers before this technology is widely accepted. Miriam pointed out that “some people are worried about giving control to what are essentially robots and generally people don’t accept that driving is dangerous”. Luke reflected that “the nature of our society at the moment is based around cars. The infrastructure such as drives in front of our houses assumes private car ownership, but at least initially private ownership of AVs will be too expensive”. So, a lot still needs to change before the full benefits that CAVs could bring are realised.

AV Interactions with Buses, Cyclists and Pedestrians – A VENTURER Trial 3 Overview

VENTURER has so far undertaken two trials, where both planned handover and interactions between an AV and other vehicles have been explored. The results of both of these trials can be found on the VENTURER website.

Trial 3 will commence this week, where participants will be rating their trust of an autonomous vehicle, while it interacts with pedestrians and cyclists. The Wildcat will be undertaking these tasks while navigating junctions and link roads, ensuring a variety of realistic road conditions are tested.

For more information click the link to the infographic below!

Trial 3 Infographic

Do We Trust Autonomous Vehicles?

Professor John Parkin discusses the VENTURER Autonomous Vehicles project and the results of trials to assess the human response to the artificial intelligence decision making system.

Are humans ready to defer decisions to artificial intelligence? 

There’s something about the grass being greener on the other side. This always makes us want to move on, not only to new places but to the future as well. As if to assist us in this quest, technology consistently offers something to surprise and delight. So, when we couple technological ‘moving on’ with more prosaic physical ‘moving on to new places’ through transport, we are doubly delighted. This double delight perhaps explains the frenzy of interest in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.

We also need, though, to hold before us the visions that we would want to move on to. This is because it is we, as humans, who will continue to live in the places we create. Comfortable, attractive and safe probably sum up a helpful vision for our public realm. Thinking more broadly and responsibly, we need to also ensure the vision is sustainable and meets everybody’s needs.

The AV ‘Great leap’ forward

The tech giants are making rapid advances towards a ‘great leap’ forward in autonomous vehicle control using ‘artificial intelligence’. Waymo has already announced it will be offering an AV taxi service without a safety driver. By contrast, the car companies are incrementally introducing autonomous features such as Volkswagen’s lane keeping, and they are also developing communications technologies between vehicles, and with infrastructure.

So to what end, and to support what vision, is the technology directed? The first line of many government publications on the subject suggests it is better safety. This would satisfy one requirement of a responsible vision for the future. Industry and commerce no doubt are also interested in cost cutting by re-deployment of staff. The tech giants and the car companies want to respectively gain and maintain automotive market share. And thinking about the users, we have found from our work on the VENTURER project that there appear to be many who would gladly give up the daily grind of drive-commuting and hand over to technology.

The safety gains of an autonomous vehicle less fallible than a human driver need to be demonstrated. In order to be safer than current drivers, AVs will need to obey the rules, maintain appropriate headways, and only accept safe gaps when making manoeuvres. In urban areas they will need to recognise and defer appropriately to other legitimate road users including pedestrians, cyclists and, presuming they remain legal, other motor vehicles driven by humans.

Trials of an AV’s decision management system

Trust is a measure of the perception a person has of the safety of technology. The second trial of the Innovate UK funded VENTURER project has been assessing the trust of people being driven in an AV using a decision management system developed as part of the project.

Participants were driven around a loop on the campus roads at the University of the West of England, Bristol, in the Wildcat AV which interacted with other cars. The participants experienced the same conditions in the VENTURER Simulator. Trust was measured for all give way turning movements at a T-junction, both with and without an on-coming vehicle. Other events included driving along a road, and overtaking a parked car, again with and without and on-coming vehicle.

The gap at the T-junction offered to the AV was the gap that half of drivers would accept, and hence complete the turn, and half of drivers would reject, i.e. wait for the on-coming vehicle to pass through the junction before making the turn.

Results of the trials

Based on the behaviour of the decision management system and the particular conditions as part of the trial, we found that trust scores were high. Overall, these scores were validated against a battery of psychometric scores also completed by the participants linked with general trust in technology. We found lower trust scores when the AV accepted the gap in the VENTURER Simulator than when the AV rejected the gap. We noted that neither driver age nor experience affected the trust ratings.

We recognise that many of the comparisons, and findings of significant and non-significant differences between the events in the trial may be related to the specific behaviour of the decision management system in the situations tested. The trial demonstrates, however, that we have a methodology to identify differences in trust by event type.

Planning for the third trial

We continue to plan for the third trial which will discover how other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, trust the AV in similar situations to those tested in the second trial.

So, will the technology enable our best visions for the future, or might it possibly corrupt better alternative visions? Safety in the urban environment is enhanced when the environment, i.e. the infrastructure, is designed to control speed. Coupled with this, we can engineer our public realm to be a rather beautiful space for humans.

So far as the vehicle is concerned, we could today mandate for speed limited vehicles and vehicles limited in their acceleration. On the current trajectory of government and industrial interest, however, it seems likely we will be required to wait until AVs appear on our streets to achieve these safety gains. Can we wait that long for technology to be cautious on our behalf? Whatever, the grass will always be greener on the other side.

Professor John Parkin CEng FICE FCIHT

VENTURER Trial 2 Results: Interactions Between Autonomous Vehicles and Other Vehicles on Links and at Junctions

VENTURER’s second trial, which examined an autonomous vehicle’s (AV) interactions in typical highway scenarios, was completed in summer 2017. The trial took place at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) and on the roads at the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol) campus. Using the VENTURER Simulator and the autonomous Wildcat, VENTURER sought to further understand user responses to AV technology as well as to validate AV decision making strategies and sensor technology during interactions with other vehicles, on road links and at junctions.

Demonstrating that AVs are able to safely navigate different highway situations including interactions with other vehicles is a crucial aspect of ensuring that AVs will be safe for deployment onto UK roads. VENTURER identified that some of the most complex driving situations occur in urban areas and include requirements for safe interactions at junctions, on road links and often involve reacting to the decisions of other vehicles.

To fully investigate these situations, different phases of experiment were included to establish whether participants’ trust ratings varied dependent on the type of AV scenario they experienced, if their trust scores were significantly different depending on the platform and how their trust scores correlated with relevant validated psychometric test scores. All testing and trials conducted by VENTURER comply with the Department for Transport’s Code of Practice for AV testing.

The findings of the study are outlined and explored in the documents below.

Download the Trial 2 Summary Report here: VENTURER Trial 2 – Summary Report

Download the full Trial 2 Technical Report here: VENTURER Trial 2 – Technical Report

Autumn Budget – An encouraging outlook for the future of driverless cars

Strangely, a widely trailed Budget pledge which didn’t make the Chancellor’s speech today may be one of the most important for the future of British manufacturing and the economy. Automated vehicles have enormous potential for UK plc as well as for our society more broadly, saving lives and offering transport solutions to people currently unable to drive.

We were expecting a big announcement. However, although the Chancellor’s speech did not mention this specifically – page 46 (4.16) of the Autumn Budget contained a section that is hugely encouraging for everyone working on projects such as VENTURER and also showcases the value of these trials to the advancement of CAV technology:

The government wants to see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021. The government will therefore make world-leading changes to the regulatory framework, such as setting out how driverless cars can be tested without a human safety operator. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) will also launch a new innovation prize to determine how future roadbuilding should adapt to support self-driving cars.

Thinking back, my first recollection of the Government’s intention in this area was noted with a single sentence in the Treasury’s 2013 National Infrastructure Plan which set aside an initial £10 million for the testing of ‘driverless vehicles’.

This led to AXA’s first meeting in the summer of 2014 at the offices of the Bristol City Council, with what would later become the VENTURER project. Whilst prospective partners were excited about the potential of the technology, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that only three years later, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be setting 2021 as the target for getting connected and autonomous vehicles on UK roads.

It should be emphasised at this point, I think, that the reason for the Treasury’s confidence in setting this date, is partly down to the work many people have put in across the country on VENTURER and other similar projects.

From AXA’s perspective, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill making its way through Parliament at the moment provides the foundation for an evolving insurance and legal framework which will be capable of changing as more advancements are made in this area.

We absolutely back the Bill and believe it is right not to over legislate at this stage. After all, if the desire is to see the UK at the forefront of this market, then the last thing we should be doing is stifling innovation.

As it stands, the Bill will provide an effective strict liability on insurers to pay out in the event of an accident involving an automated vehicle. This is hugely important for consumer trust; safety and the compensation of those injured remain at the core of the legislation.

Yes, we have questions to answer in terms of the length of handover from vehicle to a human driver and vice versa and on how data will be collected and shared with third parties, such as insurers, to process a claim as quickly as possible. There are also the new and emerging risks such as cyber-security to consider as we progress.

That’s why projects like VENTURER are really important. They allow a broad consortium of academics, local authorities, technology companies, engineering experts, roboticists and yes, lawyers and insurers too, to come together to test and validate all aspects of automated vehicles.

The pace of change is truly rapid! Today’s Budget absolutely confirms that and if you don’t believe me just think what you would have made of this blog had it been written only a few years ago. 2021 is not far away at all!

Daniel O’Byrne

Head of Public Affairs, AXA


Willingness to Share and Pay for Autonomous Vehicles

In the last months, the VENTURER social research team has undertaken and analysed a survey of South Gloucestershire and Bristol residents on the willingness to share and pay for autonomous vehicles. Survey respondents were using the different urban transport modes available in roughly the same proportions to that of the Bristol-South Gloucestershire population. Respondents were presented with four possible types of autonomous vehicle, all operating completely without a driver, to gauge their interest. This included:

  • a privately-owned and used car;
  • an exclusively used taxi on demand;
  • a shared taxi which would be lower cost to use than an exclusive taxi; and
  • an autonomous bus which would be smaller and more frequent than typical buses today.

To read more click here.

The future of driverless cars – AXA UK

Did you know over 90% of all road traffic accidents are caused by driver error? AXA have produced this video to demonstrate how they are looking to the future as a part of the VENTURER consortium…

Driverless Cars-Tomorrow’s World! – AXA Guest Blog

Insurance has been viewed as a very traditional industry for many years, so I was really excited to be able to see ‘up close’ one of the projects that really makes AXA stand out as a leader in the world of financial services.

I’ve been talking about the driverless car pilot to candidates for a couple of years in my role as a Talent Sourcer, so I knew a little about VENTURER before receiving my coveted invitation to attend the showcase event on 14th September. The subject of driverless cars is one that candidates get really excited about so I was keen to see it first-hand.

The day was hosted at Future Space and Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of West of England (UWE) campus – (think advanced robotics and men in white coats conducting top secret experiments- or that’s how it appeared to me!). I wanted to peer into every cubicle to see what on earth they were up to.

We started the day with an overview of the VENTURER project, and there was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. The advantages of autonomous vehicles are clear- lower levels of pollution, congestion, fewer insurance claims, providing options for those who can’t drive themselves- so everyone was very interested to hear of the progress and even more keen to experience it for ourselves.

After the intro, we were invited to take a ride in a driverless car simulator – basically a mock-up of the actual experience in a beautiful Range Rover to give you a sense of how it might feel in a ‘normal’ car. It’s a very strange feeling to be on the passenger’s side, watching the wheel turning by itself!

After the simulator demonstration, we had a chance to try out the Wildcat- the outdoor test vehicle. Bristling with sensors, we were safely driven by the Wildcat vehicle around the UWE campus carpark. Admittedly, our top speed was 10 miles per hour, but it was very impressive to see the Wildcat dealing with corners, stops, junctions and oncoming vehicles. I actually forgot that I wasn’t being driven by a human at one point!

I can really see how this could change people’s lives in the future. Driverless cars are coming, and our involvement in VENTURER puts us at the leading edge of InsureTech and showcases our innovative spirit!

Karen Bleakley – Senior Talent Sourcing Manager AXA UK

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.