Self-driving vehicles are to be tested on Scotland’s sometimes unfenced rural single-lane roads to see how they handle passing lanes and wandering sheep.
Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson says the trials in Scotland’s unique environments will help ensure rural areas do not miss out on the technology.
He tells The Scotsman newspaper the trial also will show how driverless vehicles cope with rural areas’ poorer and variable mobile coverage.
“The conditions of the roads can be more challenging, narrower and single-track roads with passing places,” Matheson says.” There are some unique environments that will allow us to test practical things (such as) livestock on the road – how the vehicles adapt and manage in these types of circumstances.
“On some of them, one moment you will have four bars of 4G, then you go around a bend and may have no 4G connection – how will vehicles adapt to that?”
Road safety group IAM RoadSmart’s Scotland-based policy and research director Neil Greig says it’s going to be a tough test for autonomous vehicles.
“I can’t think of a more challenging environment than rural roads in Scotland,” he tells the newspaper.
“Weather, wild animals, lorries, farm vehicles, tourists, cyclists, hikers, motorcyclists, not to mention old signs, potholes and worn markings all combine to provide a real challenge,” Greig says.
“Added to that, the subtle nuances of passing place use will be really difficult to replicate. Programming any machine so that it can distinguish between the need to wait opposite a passing place, instead of in it, is just one of the many challenges.”
Matheson says it is important that if this technology is going to be used in remote areas, there is the same level of assurances as in more urban areas.
Matheson says the Scottish government’s Transport Scotland agency is working with technology developers on potential schemes.
Meantime, five autonomous single-deck vehicles are to begin service in 2020 between Fife and Edinburgh across the Forth Road Bridge (see photo below).
The trial will see the buses, operated by Stagecoach East Scotland, used autonomously to Level 4 standard, meaning a driver must remain on board.
Funding of £4.35 million has been awarded by the U.K. government with additional investment from Stagecoach, Transport Scotland, vehicle manufacturer ADL, technology company Fusion Processing Ltd. and mobility services specialist ESP Group.
The autonomous buses will carry up to 42 passengers 14 miles (23 km) across the Forth Road Bridge to Edinburgh Park Train and Tram interchange. The buses will operate every 20 minutes.
Opened in 1964, at the time it was the largest suspension bridge in the world outside the U.S. The bridge’s central main span is 1,006 m (3,301 ft.) long, and its two side spans are each 408 m (1,339 ft) long.
In 2017, all traffic was transferred to the new Queensferry Crossing and, after being closed for repairs, the Forth Road Bridge re-opened last February for buses, taxis, cyclists and pedestrians.
And now, autonomous vehicles.