Coventry’s long association with car production started way back in 1896 when bicycle maker Harry Lawson, bought a former textile mill and produced the first Coventry Daimler basing designs on vehicles designed in Germany. The next century would see Coventry become home to hundreds of car manufacturers including Triumph, Jaguar, Alvis, Armstrong Siddeley, Chrysler, Peugeot, Singer, Humber and Rover.
Large scale vehicle manufacturer within the city may be no more but, the city’s role in vehicle evolution is far from over with Coventry playing a key role in the testing and development of the next stage of personal transportation, autonomous vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, were once only seen in science fiction yet engineers in Coventry have been quietly making them a reality and with the government recently approving the use of them on UK roads, Coventry is once again part of automotive history.
We talk to Carl Perrin, pictured, CEO of the Institute for Future Transport & Cities to find out how the city has been involved and what this new technology means to motorists across the globe and to discover Coventry’s part within it all.
So how did you get started in researching and developing self-driving cars?
My background is in automotive manufacturing and then I was at Rolls- Royce in Derby as Head of Technology producing new parts and developing new technology. I left there and came to Coventry in 2014 to work with Coventry University to set up something called the Advanced Manufacturing Institute, which was basically a new engineering centre that’s based on one of Unipart manufacturing sites. It was a partnership between Unipart and the University to train undergraduates, upskill and train people in the business, develop new technology, do R&D and commercialise projects. It was set up using government funding and it’s now self-sustaining. It’s
designed to try and address the skill gaps so rather than just train people in a classroom, businesses are playing a big role in defining the learning content and in delivering it. We’ve developed lots of technology around the green agenda and moved into manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles. There have been a lot of collaborative projects and job creation as new products have gone through to market, so it’s been a great success.
I’m also working on a number of different partnerships in and around Coventry such as with the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Automotive Research in Nuneaton and with the Mira Technology Institute where a lot of our degree apprenticeships are being conducted.
We have a project at the moment being funded by Innovate UK that is building a high speed autonomous test track that’s 1.2km long with a loop at the end, so we can really test vehicles, including autonomous ones at their limit. There’ll also be an autonomous parking facility there as well. We have partnerships looking at autonomy and the associated technologies such as connectivity and security around cyber-attacks and we’ll also be able to use that facility to test all of that. In Coventry we’re working with international companies developing battery technology, motors, power, electronics and hydrogen, as well as another green fuel.
There’s also the National Transport Design Centre on Coventry’s Technology Park where we do all elements of vehicle design, not just road but rail, air and sea. It looks at not just the stylistic element of design but also some of the human factors such as psychology and ergonomics so if you take, for example, autonomous vehicles, we might look at the impact of travel sickness on someone if they’re not facing in the direction of travel and we have a group working on advanced materials which is primarily looking at safety critical applications for aerospace.
There’s a really broad variety of projects in and around Coventry which all fall under what I would describe as Clean Growth and Future Mobility and we’re working with business to align it. It’s quite exciting. There’s a lot going on.
Isn’t there just! With all of this happening in and around Coventry it sounds like the city’s former title of the UK’s Motor City is relevant once more.
That’s right. And there are lots of small businesses starting up in the region and trying to break into this technology. We are looking at trying to put a case together for a Gigafactory in Coventry to manufacture batteries so
there’s a lot of investment here developing future transport technologies and all-around electrification and autonomy.
How important do you think that is for manufacturing in the city?
We really want to be on the map for the future. Manufacturing is a vital part of the UK economy and our export economy and as we shift away from internal combustion engines, it’s crucial that we have the technology and infrastructure, the businesses and the skills that continues to evolve and innovate.
Already in the region we have companies that are manufacturing electric vehicles such as London Electric Vehicle Company that creates the new electric Black Cabs and a range of commercial vehicles plus we have Jaguar
LandRover and Aston Martin and all of their supply chains so there’s a lot going on in the region.
So how far away are we to before we have autonomous or self-driving vehicles on the streets of Coventry, would you say?
Well, in a test mode that’s already happened, in a very controlled environment. The thing about autonomy though is that we won’t make a shift from no automation at all to full automation where you can just sit back, relax, and read a book whilst being driven. It’s not going to be like the sci fi films of the 1950s but what we will start to see is partial autonomy– we already have it with things like adaptive cruise control and lane correction. Taking that further we’re looking at vehicles being able to read and interact with its environment and other vehicles by using a variety of sensors and making decisions based upon them in real time. The technology for that is available now in some vehicles such as some Tesla models and as we’ve seen, sometimes these can go wrong.
One of the big enablers for autonomous vehicles is the roll out of 5G which allows us to transfer huge amounts of data very quickly which means that the reliability of data communication for the vehicles that are in autonomous mode will be a lot better. We’ve obviously got to manage all the issues of cybersecurity and resistance to hacking and control of the system. So, there’s a lot of work going on at the moment around that.
That’s something I never thought about!
Well, the areas that we need to overcome are security and trust in the systems. I’ve driven in an autonomous vehicle in fully autonomous mode on the tracks around Mira and it works flawlessly but that was a very controlled environment with nothing unexpected, not like an urban environment, for example. It may be that vehicles will stay manually operated in urban locations but move to autonomous mode on motorways for example, so one of the areas we are looking is that transition of control from manual to autonomous, from autonomous, back to manual and, looking at elements like how to make sure the individual is alert enough to be able to fully take control. And how long does it take to become alert and take control again?
The environmental benefits of a system like that could be huge!
Yes, if we look at trucks, for example, the benefits are quite significant in terms of fuel, in emissions and in terms of managing congestion.
So what do you think will be on our driveways in say 25 years’ time?
We’re looking at close to 2050, so the chances are that the vehicles we’re going to drive will not have internal combustion engines as we should have made a pretty much wholesale switchover to electric vehicles. There will probably be some level of connectivity with the grid for better charging, perhaps even wireless charging.
As to whether vehicles will be fully autonomous, I’m not sure, but I do think responsibility for driving in certain environments will be just handed over to the vehicle. As I say, it wouldn’t surprise me if in certain environments like on the motorway, then we would expect the vehicle to take control rather than the human. But whether we even have a car on our driveway is the question. It’s more likely we’ll be using some form of on demand vehicle subscription service via an app. We’ll call a vehicle and one that meets our needs at that moment will simply appear and then go off again once we’ve done with it.
It may sound crazy but the technology for that sort of business model is there so maybe we’re not talking about 25 years into the future, we just need to see how autonomous vehicles fit into that.