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11 Sep 2019

International research centre will investigate new road safety concerns

A new £1.5m 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.

He 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.

“Therefore, I3 investment will be used to bring the collective knowledge, skills, resources and facilities of the 3 universities to develop an international centre capable of tackling key emerging issues related to the rapid transition towards CAVs within the transport system.

“The UK already has a reputation as a world-leader in CAV technology – a sector that is predicted to be worth £63 billion by 2035, and the UK government has pledged that the UK should retain such leadership in the years ahead.

“However, associated with the introduction of CAVs on the roads are a range of technical and ethical challenges.”

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 research 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.

Some of the key research questions posed by the centre include:

  • How can CAVs be fully integrated into future mobility systems to ensure that the benefits of CAVs are experienced by all members of society especially VRUs?
  • Internal VRUs (CAV passengers) – should crashes occur, how can children, elderly, impaired and other vulnerable groups be protected when they may be seated in non-standard positions and may be unrestrained?
  • External VRUs – how can CAVs successfully detect pedestrians, cyclists and other VRUs and predict their behaviours in order to identify and avoid collision risks? 
  • What are the specific requirements for CAVs to interact appropriately with VRUs? How can we develop transparent two-way communication between the vehicle and human?

Data published in 2018 suggested that VRUs are now much more likely to be killed in urban traffic accidents compared to car occupants.

Of even greater concern is that there is limited recognition of the full impact that the introduction of CAVs will have on the VRU group.

The associated objectives of the international research centre are, therefore:

  • To utilise investment funding to undertake internationally leading research that will save lives and prevent injuries;
  • To develop a coordinated research agenda and knowledge-exchange across the 3 organisations, and to promote the agenda through collaborative research;
  • To utilise investment funding to develop a PhD level skills-base thereby ensuring a pipeline of world-leading researchers in the field of VRU safety;
  • To influence research-funders to support this challenge;
  • To establish an advisory group of international stakeholders to ensure the programme is closely aligned with the research needs of practitioners globally;
  • To maximise the opportunity for each partner to benefit from national research investments – and through sharing of such investment to provide three times the benefit of UK-only funding;
  • To ensure that the centre and the partnership are sustainable and will continue to operate at both a high strategic and research level well beyond the end of the funding period.

The project is one of the first investments to be made through Research England’s International Investment Initiative (I3). In total, Research England will invest £3.6m 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.

Research England’s Director of Research Steven Hill said: “Research England’s mission is to create and sustain the conditions for a healthy and dynamic research and knowledge exchange system in English universities.

“One-way Research England seeks to accomplish this mission is by providing performance-based, institution-focussed funding to deliver excellent research and high-performance knowledge exchange, unlocking potential, generating economic and social impact, and meeting national priorities and global challenges.

“Global collaboration is an increasingly important factor in research and innovation success, supporting access to talent, resources and markets that are not available nationally, and the I3 scheme is one of a range of existing and new policy measures that support Research England in achieving this goal.”

For more information about I3, follow this link.