Could quantum technologies speed us towards driverless transport?

Peter Thompson
CEO at the National Physical Laboratory

“Technology is revolutionising how we power vehicles, how they are driven, how we navigate”, as Prime Minister Theresa May stated in a recent speech.

At the centre of this revolution is the move towards automation of vehicles, whether crewless ships, pilotless planes or driverless cars, offering substantial gains in efficiency, cost and safety. The UK Government has established the future of mobility as one of its four ‘grand challenges’ – prioritising it as an opportunity to put the UK at the forefront of major global changes, improving people’s lives and the country’s productivity. With that, comes an ambitious target to have fully self-driving cars on the road by 2021, and create a predicted £52 billion UK market opportunity for connected and autonomous vehicles by 2035. It’s also been coupled with investment, with £250 million backing announced for development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Yet there remain some important obstacles to navigate on the road to transport automation. Self-driving cars failed over 2,500 times in testing in the last year alone, often due to challenges with vehicles self-navigating. Chief among these challenges is ‘sensor fusion’, the fact that autonomous vehicles systems must choose between conflicting information from an array of onboard sensors. Without human senses to interpret a vehicle’s surroundings, driverless vehicles have to rely on sensors to be their eyes and ears. These must provide reliable and accurate information on everything from location to temperature, to allow robust decisions – whether making a turn, or putting the windscreen wipers on. The cameras on vehicles can be blinded by adverse weather conditions, poor lighting or obstacles ahead. Autonomous vehicle sensors also struggle to see around corners or behind objects. Even Lidar has ‘blind spots’ and can struggle to detect objects close to the ground. With such limitations on the data these sensors are collecting, can we really trust the decisions based on that data?

As well as ‘seeing’ the environment around them, processing challenges remain for autonomous vehicles. The need for advanced Artificial Intelligence algorithms to give vehicles self-navigating properties will demand enormous processing power and require watertight cyber security. We have already seen cars being successfully hacked into, and this will become a matter of life or death when they are controlled entirely by machine.

Autonomous cars will also be reliant on a wider smart cities network that controls traffic. In order to function correctly, the entire system needs to be secure. Something as simple as a false weather report – for example showing that the weather will be freezing – could bring entire cities to a standstill.

It’s not only cars that are going driverless; the oil and gas industry are looking at autonomous vehicles for undersea exploration, and the mining and construction industries could benefit from productivity gains using autonomous vehicles. However, the satellite navigation systems currently relied upon for location data cannot function deep underground or underwater. They are also vulnerable to interference from electronic jamming or ‘spoofing’ of the satellite signals, which there is insufficient protection against.

Quantum technologies offer a potential path around these obstacles to the autonomous transport revolution. Developments, particularly in inertial sensors that measure acceleration and rotation could enable vehicles to autonomously navigate with extraordinary precision. Quantum technologies could provide better performance than GPS and would work underwater, in built-up areas and even underground, as well as being immune to signal loss or jamming. Other quantum sensors, sensitive to single photons of light, will be able to build up images in low light levels – crucial for the ability to navigate in all weathers.

Quantum computing could also provide the processing power needed to make sense of the data from all the sensors, and take fast, reliable action. Quantum cryptography will enable very secure communication between systems, protecting autonomous vehicles from outside interference. One UK firm is currently working with Innovate UK to create Quantum Random Number Generators (QNRG) that can generate random numbers by tapping into light particles to create car security. Quantum Key Distribution will also enable passcodes to be stored in the physical state of an atom, providing secure communications for connected vehicles, among other applications.

Quantum technologies offer a unique opportunity to accelerate the uptake of autonomous vehicles and the benefits they offer.

The Government has committed hundreds of millions over the last few years to develop quantum technologies in the UK. There is now an extraordinary opportunity for the transport industry to capitalise on the work of our amazing research base. I am leading a new national activity to work with industry to identify how they can best use and take advantage of quantum technologies to make the UK a world leader in a global market.

It is a unique opportunity for transport companies to ensure the development of technologies addresses their needs and unlocks new opportunities to transform the sector.