Driven to distraction
When autonomous vehicles, also known as automated vehicles, self-driving or driver-less cars, have made the head-lines recently, it has normally been in the context of road traffic accidents. Nevertheless, they are considered to be the technology of the future and safer than ‘normal’ cars because they eliminate human error. Looking at the way the lap-top on which I am penning these lines functions (or rather randomly, doesn’t function) I am not sure whether I don’t prefer human error to machine error, but there we are. There are obviously different levels of automation. They start from the adaptive cruise control and plethora of audio and/or visual warning and emergency call systems already common on many cars today, and range to fully autonomous vehicles capable of being operated with little or no input from a driver.
The EU Commission expects the first vehicles driving themselves to hit the roads by 2020 and be commonplace by 2030. The EU sees autonomous vehicles in the context of the internet of things. Little surprise, therefore, that we witness a development race between traditional car makers and technology giants like Google as to who will bring their product to the starting line first. Google must be relishing the thought of a (literally) captive audience being force fed yet more gratuitous push advertising while standing in a traffic jam caused by crashing vehicle computers and drivers listening to help-lines telling them that their call is ‘important to us’.
But is the legal and regulatory framework in the UK ready for Alexa to drive you to work, and what happens if she bumps into Sifi? Much of the legal thinking on self-driving cars goes back to a Government review published in 2015 under the title The pathway to driverless cars, which mapped out plans for updating UK laws and regulations to allow these vehicles onto the roads and encourage further development of the technology. The testing of automated vehicles on public roads is already legal in the UK, provided that a driver is present, takes responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle, and provided that insurance cover is in place. Still back in 2015, the government published a Code of Practice for testing of automated vehicle technologies; while not mandatory, the Code sets out guidelines for the use of automated vehicles.
Further work has been done since, for example, on cybersecurity principles for connected and automated vehicles in 2017, and the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill is expected to receive royal assent in the near future. Some of the key issues that will need to be addressed to bring the legal framework up to speed include: vehicle safety and roadworthiness (e.g. by changing the MOT requirements), type approval and certification, cybersecurity, the transitioning between automated and manual modes in the case of highly but not fully automated vehicles, failure warning, liability and insurance, and data protection and privacy. A particular challenge will lie in the cross-border use of these vehicles. The EU is equally active in this field, with the Europe on the Move strategy earlier this year leading to publication of a final third mobility package, as well as publishing a proposed initiative on artificial intelligence that will support driverless vehicles.
Given that I actually enjoy driving, I will dread the day and will probably spend my time imprisoned in a self-driving plastic bubble, fondly remembering the days of carburettor engines, banks of analogue dials on wooden dashboards, and of speedometer needles touching 300 kilo-metres per hour on empty autobahns. When driving a car well and driving it fast was an honest fight between man and machine.
This article was published in Discover Germany in July 2018 and can be read here.