Palms open and fingers spread, the hands of motorist Tom Watts hover beneath the car’s steering wheel as we glide along a busy dual carriageway through Woolwich in south London. But far from being a stuntman or erratic taxi driver, Tom is a calm and responsible automotive engineer demonstrating the capabilities of the latest autonomous vehicle that steers, accelerates, and brakes all by itself.
His participation in the journey was, it turns out, negligible; he was there in case the need for intervention arose and to provide a degree of reassurance to his passengers. Throughout the 20-minute drive around two laps of a route populated with buses, lorries, cars and cyclists Tom’s hands could be seen in real time on a computer monitor placed behind the driver’s headrest – and not once did they reach out to touch the wheel.
“I’m still in charge of the vehicle and will intervene if there is anything I deem to be unsafe,” he explained later after our faultless ride concluded. “But there was no need; that drive was 100%.”
Tom and his colleague Nirav Shah sat alongside him work for Nissan, which is coming to the end of a three-year advanced autonomous drive technology project called ServCity that brings together five further consortium partners including Connected Places Catapult which leads on project management and economic modelling. The Catapult is now looking to use the project to create a blueprint for how a future ‘robo-taxi’ service could be deployed in a UK city.
So far the vehicle has driven over 1750 miles around its south London circuit and recorded more than 83,000 ‘interactions’ with other vehicles and pedestrians with, it is comforting to hear, no accidents.