Autonomous tech’s near future depends on speedy regulators, Renault’s Thierry Viadieu tells Paul Myles. [Auto.Myles.2016.09.30]

Regulators are in the driving seat when it comes to deciding how quickly autonomous vehicles will take control on of our roads.

That’s the opinion of Renault’s mobility programme director Thierry Viadieu who is adamant the necessary auto technology will be ready in time for any urgent push to get driverless cars on European roads.

That said, urban environments where autonomous vehicles could bring the greatest benefits to consumers and the ecology also are among the hardest places to make the technology work. Speaking exclusively to TU-Automotive at the Paris Motor Show 2016, Viadieu said: “City environments will be the biggest challenge so, for example, think about connected traffic lights sending signals telling the cars they are red, orange or green and the car can react. But the question is do we really need it? Because we have camera technology already that is perfectly able to see the change in colour of lights, yet some regulators may insist that the ability to receive a signal from the lights is necessary before autonomous technology would be allowed.”

Probably the biggest influence the regulators could have on driverless technology would be to ring-fence areas exclusively for autonomous vehicles.

Viadieu explained: “There are [computer data] simulations available today from some cities studying the effects of the numbers of driverless cars in that environment. These clearly show that the more you increase the percentage of driverless cars on the road, you increase dramatically mobility, such as the numbers of available parking spaces and the numbers of charging points for EVs, and so reduce pollution and accidents.

“So this shows that when you reach 100% of driverless cars in a city the social benefit can be very high indeed. These kind of studies drive a lot of interest from cities and local government so that could help with adoption of the technology.

“However, to impose this kind of restriction on the population of a city would be a very big disruptor. Nonetheless, if it was done then it would definitely be a boost for the technology and its further development.”

Yet Viadieu concedes that the regulator’s role is not an easy one considering the huge uncertainties over how the technology will be able to make the step from testing into real-world environments.

He said: “Naturally, if I put myself in the shoes of the regulators, they will be a little scared about there being no people in charge of the vehicles. It is possible for weird things to happen as we have seen in a few cases so far.

“So, on one hand, there is a need to be very cautious but on the other the benefits for the governments are very high because most of the accidents and injuries on the roads today are related to human mistakes. This can be from distraction, sleeping, drinking alcohol and all the other things we know very well.

“With autonomous we can have people in situations where these kind of mistakes will not happen anymore. So, from a social benefit point of view, this is huge with the dramatic reduction in accidents and injuries on the road. And it’s not just the death toll, the cost of sending emergency services to the scene of an accident is very expensive. I think for governments to be pushing in the direction of this technology and getting it quickly is very important to them.”

Infrastructure will be a key battleground for the driverless technology reliant on national and city government cooperation, said Viadieu. “Car-to-car technology will take some time because if you are on the road with this technology most of the other cars on the road won’t have it. But with car-to-infrastructure I think first we have to decide on what do we need and then what the governments will be willing to do to make this happen.”

However, Viadieu said sometime it’s the simplest of infrastructure technologies that can have the biggest effect on the operational capabilities of driverless cars. He explained: “I was in a recent Round Table about autonomous driving and someone from highway construction asked me: what was the technology you would like us to embark on? And I answered: ‘Please paint the lines well!’

“This may look like a joke answer but it’s not because this is very important for autonomous driving. Once we have the lines painted properly this is a great help in positioning the car well on the road. Even with today’s technology of lane keeping, as soon as the lines are not well painted then you can have issues.

“If these simple things coupled with more advanced sensors on the road contribute to the robustness of autonomous driving then the governments can allow the technology more quickly to be implemented.”

Viadieu sees no issues with automotive technology keeping pace with the desires of regulators to get driverless vehicles up-and-running sooner rather than later. He said: “We have seen that this kind of innovation can come to the market place pretty quickly and with the onset of AI and deep learning the cars will be able to quickly learn where it stands in the world and will be able to change its software to suit very quickly.”

Viadieu concedes that Europe is in real danger of fallen behind the pace of the US and China in autonomous technology because of its so far disparate approach to regulation. He explained: “Of course, I would very much like to see a collective regulatory approach in Europe as we have seen in the US. I hope we will get something like that because today, for example, in terms of testing somethings are allowed in Germany but not in France and this is a real issue for us. Of course, I can’t say at the moment what we are testing but we are testing this technology in countries where it can be done legally and safely.”

Yet, Renault is confident it will be ready to match other manufacturers’ autonomous programmes in terms of applying the required technological steps towards driverless vehicles. Viadieu said: “Before 2020 we will be offering vehicles with autonomous driving features but still with the driver responsible for the vehicle and then the next generation will follow on from that.”

TU-Automotive Europe 2016

02 Nov 2016 - 03 Nov 2016, Munich, Germany

For 13 years, this event has grown enormously in size, scope and significance - totally reflecting the path that the connected car has taken from ‘concept’ to ‘reality’. To reflect how the future of the car is not only being defined by in-car connectivity, we have added two new areas of focus to our conference - new models of auto mobility and automated driving technology.