Video: Driverless cars to be tested on Scotland's roads later this year
The Scottish Government is keen to catch up with developments south of the Border, where experiments with autonomous transport started three years ago.
However, the head of a commission examining the future of Scottish transport has warned that the technology could increase the number of vehicles on the roads.
The trials are expected to follow a “demonstration summit” to be held later this year, which has been announced by transport minister Humza Yousaf.
They could involve vans and/or lorries since Mr Yousaf has told MSPs they will “potentially be with the freight and logistics sectors”.
Trials elsewhere have included Volvo in Sweden using lorries travelling close together in “platoons” controlled from the lead vehicle. The UK Government plans a similar exercise on motorways.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency said: “The minister was illustrating a sector that could potentially benefit from autonomous vehicles (AVs) in creating a more efficient road network.
“The upcoming summit will explore other areas that could also benefit, and narrow down what Scotland would most like to learn from a pilot.
“Trials of automated technologies are possible in Scotland today, as it is across the UK, providing a test driver is present and takes responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle – and that the vehicle can be used compatibly with road traffic law.
“We are keen to explore how we can facilitate trials and pilots in Scotland. The summit is the first step on that journey.”
A new report by a connectivity commission appointed by business group Scottish Council for Development and Industry said AVs could cut crashes and make travel easier for those who couldn’t drive.
However, the Scotland’s Big Mo [mobility] study also warned they might encourage more trips by car rather than on foot or by bike, increasing the cost of road maintenance.
Commission chair George Hazel said: “They could mean we don’t need room for parking any more, which would free space in cities.
“But if we all have AVs and all live in places like Balfron and Pitlochry with AVs driving us to the office, it would lead to the spread of cities. Nobody really knows the impact.”
Neil Greig, the Scotland-based policy and research director of motoring group IAM RoadSmart, said: “Real-world trials are the best way to introduce Scots to the benefits and pitfalls of AVs.
“Administratively it should be simpler here with one government, one police force, fewer authorities and many world-famous companies and universities.
“What we lack in a home-grown motor industry we can more than make up for by offering extreme weather and some very congested motorways and cities to test AVs to the limit.
“The research priorities should be around public acceptability and the safe handover of control between humans and machines.
“More and more evidence is emerging that any system that retains any element of human intervention cannot deliver the huge safety benefits we have been promised.”
Technology we may all soon have to get used to, says Alastair Dalton
It seemed like just another car trip - except the driver didn’t have his hands on the wheel.
Squeezing into the cramped back seat of the specially-adapted Renault Twizy, all appeared normal as Aku Kyyhkynen took me for a spin on the streets near Helsinki.
But peering over his shoulder, I saw the little electric car was accelerating, braking and turning corners all by itself.
The vehicle is being used in a two-month Finnish trial over a two-mile route in suburban Vantaa.
Anyone can turn up and be a passenger, like me, in the first autonomous car test of its type in Finland. The Twizy was chosen to replicate a potential self-driving taxi of the future.
It is being accompanied by public tests of a six-seat “robot bus” in Helsinki.
Tommi Rimpiläinen, chief operating officer of vehicle automation firm Sensible 4, which is running the aIGO trial, said it would help develop self-driving software that could be used in any vehicle.
He was convinced of the benefits, despite a pedestrian being killed by a self-driving Uber car in Arizona in March.
During my ten-minute ride, the Twizy spotted a pedestrian waiting at a crossing and automatically came to a halt.
Mr Rimpiläinen said: “There is huge safety potential - an autonomous vehicle cannot break traffic laws.
“I bet it will be safer than a guy who has just got his driving licence.”
However, in the trial a driver is still needed as a safety back-up and for certain actions which the technology can’t yet cope with, such as operating direction indicators and negotiating traffic lights.
A van with monitoring equipment also follows behind. When the researchers are sure everything works perfectly, the “driver” will sit in the back seat as the next step. “There is no point in rushing,” said Mr Rimpiläinen. “Then you do a lot of damage to everybody.”
With the area’s speed limit 30kph (19mph) - much like most of Edinburgh - I felt quite safe in the back. If I’d taken Mr Kyyhkynen’s place in the driving seat, it may have been an altogether more unnerving experience.
But perhaps in the not too distant future, that’s what we may all have to get used to.