Smart cars and driverless car technology have been in the news for some time now, with the likes of Tesla making large, public headwaves. Yet, when it comes to the UK at least, what challenges do we face before these vehicles can be mass adopted?
This is an issue worth addressing, as the introduction of smart cars or autonomous driving couldn’t have come sooner.
In a report released earlier this year, research for Transport for London showed that the speed of traffic in the heart of London’s streets now moves at an average of just 7.4 mph. It seems that, despite best efforts (or taxes), traffic is increasing and bringing the economy to a grinding halt.
Could driverless car technology help free up London’s congested roads?
Smart car vs driverless car
However, before we can explore this topic in more detail, we should look at just what a smart car is, as opposed to autonomous driving cars, because there is a significant difference.
Simply put, a smart car will interact with its environment, via sensors embedded into the civil infrastructure, all whilst being guided by a human, whereas an autonomous vehicle is capable of navigating any environment, regardless of human input or embedded technology.
While smart cars can be readily implemented onto roads, there are still issues with driverless car technology and the current driving laws in the UK. Do we know, for instance, what the implications could be of such technology? With particular regard to autonomous vehicles, there is a lot that needs to be considered.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that even the most autonomous of cars still requires some human car. They can drive themselves, but they can’t change a car tyre, refill their tyre pressure or any other basic maintenance that is required.
One of the biggest challenges faced by driverless cars is the issue of car insurance and, specifically, determining liability.
Unfortunately, human nature allows for free will, choices to be made and, consequently, behaviour based on those choices. Theoretically, that would be great if we all lived in some sort of utopian state, but that isn’t the reality that we live in.
Smart cars are not completely safe against thieves.
While current driving laws and legislation currently dictate that autonomous driving isn’t possible without someone actually sitting in the car, how long after that legislation ends will the first TWOC (Taken Without Owner’s Consent) report be filed?
Yet the issue isn’t just that instances of theft may rise; there is a whole world of associated implications. Where was it stolen? Don’t know. How long has it been missing? Don’t know. Of course, to a degree, it’s possible for smart cars to emit their location for tracking, but the fact remains that the driver will be completely unaware until this data is retrieved.
This is also just assuming if the whole vehicle was to go missing – an empty car stuck in traffic would be a perfect target for the opportunist thief. No matter what security systems are in place to stop the theft of the vehicle, a glass window always makes for easy access to anything inside.
Accidents and injuries
Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario: you’re driving through the heart of a city, with your car’s autonomous mode managing everything and someone steps into the path of the car.
Admittedly, in most cases, the car will recognise the fact that something is in the way and take action but, no matter how clever the technology may be, a car still needs a stopping distance. Who’s to blame? What if you now remove yourself from that situation - then who would be to blame?
In June 2016, Tesla reported the first fatal accident for a self-driving car. It seems that both the technology and the driver failed to notice imminent danger. Tesla claims that this was the first fatality in over 130 million miles of self-driving technology.
Tesla, one of the current leader’s in driverless car technology, already faces problems with its existing smart cars.
No doubt, of course, that manufacturers will have the catch-all phrase of ‘the driver must be fully aware of road conditions and dangers, ready to take control at any time’ added into the sales literature, but what else can they do? Introduce a legally binding contract saying that they hold no responsibility?
Until there’s a clear answer on who is liable for a driverless car when it is fully automated, there may be many legal hurdles up ahead.
The insurance industry tell us that premiums have (on the whole) decreased over the last decade, although perhaps that would be more believable if we’d have ever met anyone that says their premium has decreased (but that’s a whole other issue).
Would the rise of autonomous driving lead to cheaper car insurance (Please link this to the recent car insurance article) premiums? After all, surely safety will improve as a result of this technology? If you consider that many policies look for the owner’s standard of driving - such as their driving record, additional awareness courses and general experience on the road - what happens when the car has its own driving style?
Truthfully, until every single vehicle on the road is capable of self-driving, there is always going to be a human element, and that is where the technology falls down. Insurance companies certainly have their own dilemmas to face in this regard.
As good as autonomous technology is, it isn’t capable - at least not yet - of rational decision making; if a human was in control of a vehicle and was presented with hitting a queue of school children or hitting a wall, we’d take the wall.
However, would a computer be able to rationalise that? There are various scenarios that follow this line of thought, but for the sake of decency, we won’t pursue them here. It’s an entire topic in its own right.
All in all, we think that the advent of self-driving or autonomous vehicles is helping to bring a whole new world and we can certainly envisage a day in the future where all vehicles will be self-driving. Until that day arrives, there are a host of implications that need a great deal of thought before accepting the technology into our daily lives.
Hopefully, when cars are capable of talking to each other along with driving themselves, it will have a significant impact on traffic congestion, meaning that in another thirty years or so, the average speed of London traffic may actually get back to where it was thirty years ago.