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International research centre to investigate new road safety concerns as driverless cars become popular

A new £1.5 million ($1.86 million) research centre will investigate the safety issues faced by pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and children as the growing number of driverless cars bring fresh challenges to the roads.

The international initiative led by Loughborough University, in partnership with Queensland University of Technology, Australia, and Tongji University, in China, has been part-funded by Research England as part of a project to boost international collaborations.

The new centre aims to save lives and prevent injuries to young and elderly pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and sensory-impaired road users by providing the motor industry with new research about how autonomous vehicles and vulnerable road users interact. Vulnerable road users (VRUs) account for 59% of those either killed or seriously injured in collisions involving cars and other vehicles.

Centre Director Professor Andrew Morris, of the Transport Safety Research Centre, in the School of Design and Creative Arts, said the rapid introduction of driverless cars, also known as connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), within the transport system raises new technical and ethical challenges for manufacturers and regulators.

Andrew Morris said: “We are delighted and honoured to be working with such prestigious research institutions as CARRS-Q, at the Queensland University of Technology, and the International Research Laboratory of Transportation Safety, at Tongji University. I think this collaboration will make us a very powerful force with respect to ensuring that the introduction of CAVs is not detrimental to safety. To be successful, future CAVs must be fully and safely integrated into the future mobility environment.”

There have been several reports worldwide of injuries to road-users who have come in contact with autonomous vehicles. Last December, an Arizona woman pushing a bicycle across the road was killed when a self-driving test car had trouble classifying her as a pedestrian and failed to stop. According to the local police, the car’s test driver was watching TV on her phone at the time of the accident. A report by the National Transport Safety Board said that the test driver did not look up until half a second before the fatal collision and did not press the brakes until less than a second after impact.

Prof Morris said: “There are concerns about how a vehicle with a driver inside, who is only partially engaged with the driving task, will be able to respond to traffic situations where more vulnerable road-users are present. At the moment, in many situations there is an implicit communication code between driver and pedestrian – for example, crossing the road. This will disappear with vehicle autonomy. It’s important to ensure that these safety implications do not go unrecognised.”

The centre will gather accident data from around the world and will seek data from experimental trials as well as through questionnaires and focus groups. PhD students – up to a dozen based across the three universities – will also interview road users and publish their findings in recognised journals. All of the data gathered will be made available to the motor industry and will be presented at a series of seminars and an international conference scheduled for 2023.

The project is one of the first investments to be made through Research England’s International Investment Initiative (I3). It will receive £436,067 ($540,723) via the scheme. In total, Research England will invest £3.6 million ($4.46) into international collaborations led by UK universities. The partnerships, involving collaborators from Canada, Australia, Singapore and Finland, will address major industrial and societal challenges in healthcare, sustainable technologies and artificial intelligence.

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