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Ross James - StreetDrone autonomous car engineer
Ross James is an engineer - but in his role of testing autonomous cars he must be ready to assume control Credit:  Simon Arron

In the automotive world, it’s probably the closest thing there is to being a goalkeeper. A last line of defence. The one whose errors are most likely to be noticed.

Officially, Ross James is a project engineer with StreetDrone, an Oxfordshire-based firm founded three years ago to develop autonomous road technology. But he also doubles up as its safety driver.

三级成人视频When one of its vehicles is set free in the real world, surrounded by others in the hands of humans for whom the rules often seem merely notional, he’s the one on board, poised to intervene if required.

“Other road users are the most unpredictable element of my role,” he says. “I have to make sure I’m ready – and the way the vehicle is designed, I can take control instantly just by touching the steering wheel or the brake pedal. As soon as the system senses any human input, it hands back control and as a last resort there’s a big red button that cuts power to everything.

三级成人视频“In London you get van and taxi drivers doing all sorts of things. When you’re running a system that’s designed to comply with the letter of the law, you are soon very acutely aware that most people don’t…

James says that other road users are the most unpredictable part of the job - for himself and the driverless car's battery of cameras and radar that allow it to 'see' its way around south London

“If there is a vehicle parked in an irregular place – the middle of the road, for instance – the system won’t scan that so I’ll take control.”

三级成人视频After significant tests away from public roads, StreetDrone began conducting trials in London last year – initially on a small scale, using a privately owned development to the city’s south-east. Its system combines an open-source software stack with, among other things, a LiDAR laser scanner to judge distances, cameras for object detection and ultra-sonic sensors for small gaps, such as those commonly used as parking aids on everyday cars.

“Going into autonomous mode wasn’t that strange,” James says, “but doing it in London still felt like a big moment. There was actually a 5mph limit, though not many people seemed to realise as much, despite all the signs.

三级成人视频“From here our target is to expand the ODD [operational design domain, which takes account of prevailing road conditions, the weather, whether they are detecting static or dynamic objects and similar parameters] in a gradual manner, but our initial focus is on [central] London Zone 1 and low speeds – probably no more than 20mph, because average road speeds in London are below 10mph.

“We’re looking to develop in terms of both speed and the breadth of hazards and obstacles with which the system can cope. It’s a gradual process and one of the really good things about starting off so slowly is that it gives you a proper awareness of the potential hazards, so you can develop the system to cope.

“That’s one of the benefits of having an engineer on board: a good understanding of the system really helps, because no two journeys are ever the same – you always see different stuff that makes you wonder how you would programme in the ideal vehicle response.”

Heavy, unpredictable traffic such as that at Trafalgar Square is a stern test for driverless tech. James says: “You always see different stuff that makes you wonder how you would programme in the ideal vehicle response.” Credit: PA

Given that there are more than 30 million conventional cars on the UK’s roads, it will presumably be quite some time before technology of this kind takes any kind of foothold.

三级成人视频“Mixed modality, autonomous cars running alongside non-autonomous cars, is obviously a challenge,” says StreetDrone’s business development manager Joe Smith.

三级成人视频“We’re erring away from overpromising and underdelivering and prefer to make incremental increases in the vehicle’s functionality. It’s hard to say, ‘Right, we’re going to complete this by 2025.’ It’s on the horizon, but it’s impossible to say when. Some cities are already moving towards allowing only electric vehicles into certain areas and we could see the same thing with autonomous or partly autonomous vehicles.”

三级成人视频James adds: “The timescale for full autonomy is probably very different to that for limited autonomy. The latter is a closer reality.”

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