The development of autonomous vehicles lies at the heart of the government’s industrial strategy, as made clear by chancellor Philip Hammond in November last year that driverless cars would be on the road by 2021.
In addition, the government announced funding of more than £22m for 22 research and development projects relating to the development of driverless vehicle technology in February alone.
Indeed, it seems the political and commercial attractiveness of crossing the finish line first in the race for driverless cars shows no sign of fading; with the likes of Ford, General Motors and Tesla, among others, investing heavily in research to make autonomous vehicles a reality.
But whilst the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission explore how traditional laws will need to be adjusted to take account of changes in criminal offences and liability, the fundamental question on everyone’s lips will remain the same: ‘Are driverless cars really safe?’
Taking it down a gear
If the government’s recent decision to carry out a three-year law review before the introduction of self-driving cars on UK roads didn’t imply an ‘amber’ signal and the need for more clarity and detailed guidance on driverless cars, then the fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle and pedestrian in Arizona has almost certainly promoted this to ‘red’.
Indeed ‘stop’ is exactly what transport network organisation, Uber – whose autonomous vehicle was involved in the incident – has done, by putting the brakes on and suspending self-driving car tests following the first fatal collision involving an autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian.
So with the innovation that’s been earmarked as the future of the industry being called into question, what does this mean for the emergence of driverless vehicles in reality?
The future focus
Innovation and technological advances continue to create seismic changes in the automotive, tech and insurance sectors.
In his Autumn Budget last year, the chancellor announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of pounds to upgrade electric car charging facilities. This move has been welcomed by manufacturers. Yet there continues to be a disproportionate focus on the ‘future’ as leading companies and technologists battle it out to be in the driving seat on driverless vehicles.
This obsession with the future has led to the voice of the UK public being somewhat overlooked. Are UK consumers ready to embrace this significant change?
Research conducted for The Times published earlier this year revealed that three quarters of drivers are not confident that driverless cars will be safe to use, with the risk of being hacked their biggest worry. Additionally, almost two thirds of motorists would not buy a driverless car and almost one third would not pay extra for one.
While we are confident that vehicle manufacturers will be able to solve the technical issues, there will remain a concerned public who may take some time to warm to the idea of taking their hands off the wheel.
Only time will tell if the public can be swayed, although setbacks such as the self-driving Uber incident in Arizona will do little to boost public confidence in autonomous technology.
We are in danger of reaching our destination before we’ve ensured we’ve even packed up the car. Regulating a complex, fast-evolving technology such as autonomous driving is challenging, therefore the immediate priority must be ensuring that autonomous vehicles are safe, without inhibiting innovation, balancing the technologically possible with the socially acceptable.