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.

VENTURER and GATEway collaborate on public event

Over the weekend of 4 – 6 August VENTURER teamed up with the GATEway project as part of the Festival of What If, hosted by the At-Bristol Science Centre, to showcase driverless technology to the public.

The event focused on the future of transport and represented a first for the VENTURER consortium by partnering with the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment (GATEway) project led by TRL. GATEway is based in the UK Smart Mobility Living Lab in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, London and has similar objectives to VENTURER including exploring public perception and understanding of Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs).

Both projects are using virtual simulations and physical test beds in order to better understand the legal and technical challenges of implementing automated vehicles in urban environments, with VENTURER testing the on-road Wildcat vehicle in a range of increasingly complex urban environments. They are also looking to analyse and influence public understanding and acceptance of CAVs with GATEway focusing on first and last mile transportation and urban deliveries and VENTURER looking at on-road autonomy issues including handover of control.

The highlight of the three-day outdoor event was the GATEway driverless pod, built by Westfield Sportscars Ltd using the original Heathrow design and equipped with 3D imaging and location sensors developed by Bristol-based company Fusion Processing. A large area on Millennium Square was cordoned off to allow for the pod to perform a ‘figure of eight’ loop, which, despite the varying weather conditions, drew the attention of many members of the public visiting the harbourside.

Also popular with families was the Wildcat which they could get up close to in order to inspect the many sensors it has. Staff from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), Bristol City Council and Atkins were on hand to explain how the technology works and to provide more information about the VENTURER project.

Visitors were also able to sit in the stationary Renault Twizy which was brought along by the BRL. It was, however, most impressive when it was being driven autonomously in ‘no hands’ mode to the delight and confusion of many people on Millennium Square!

Younger visitors were particularly taken with Pepper, a programmable humanoid robot which is able to talk and pick up on the emotions of humans around him as well as MiRo, a puppy robot which would be a great companion for people who either can’t have pets in their homes or who are not mobile enough to take one out every day.

The At-Bristol Science Centre had also designed some engaging activities for children to take part in; one of these involved using a carpet with a city scape seen from above printed on it. Using stickers, children were invited to add information about their ideal mode of transport and then consider how this was comparable to a driverless vehicle. Several of the visiting children also had a ride in the pod and were able to sit in the Renault Twizy as well.

The VENTURER consortium also provided other forms of learning activities, including a series of questions and a quiz using the Big Screen overlooking Millennium Square and there was even a ‘selfie board’ for those who are really big driverless car fans!


– Izzy Kongsgaard, Bristol City Council