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Look, no hands?

Somewhat later than some other countries, the UK is to prepare the way for driverless cars to be on public roads by next year. But there are significant legal barriers which must be overcome before this can happen.

Driverless cars promise to make motoring safer

Driverless cars promise to make motoring safer

A quick straw poll among Engineer staff indicates that we’re broadly in favour of autonomous vehicles, but people have a range of concerns. Chief among these is the liability issue: should an autonomous vehicle be involved in an accident, who is liable? The car owner? The car maker? The manufacturer of the autonomy system? The producer of the software that system is running?

’Is there a need for somebody capable of taking control to be in the vehicle at all times?

Then there’s the issue of overriding the system. Is there a need for somebody capable of taking control to be in the vehicle at all times? If not, there would be nothing to stop a drunk person (or even a child) getting into the car and pressing ‘go’. If there is, what state of readiness would that person have to be in? Hands on the wheel at all times? Would they be able to use a mobile phone, for example? What if they nodded off on the motorway?

Another issue is how emergency services might deal with autonomous vehicles. Would they be able to ‘force’ vehicles out of their way by vehicle-to-vehicle communication? Could they order vehicles to pull over? How do you identify an autonomous vehicle from the outside, anyway?

On the whole, it’s probably true that, on balance, autonomous vehicles would make the roads safer. They wouldn’t try some of the more audacious — if not downright dangerous – manoeuvres one sees every day on the road. Presumably the autonomy system would be programmed to comply with the Highway Code, although it might be that some version of Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics might be needed in the case of collision avoidance. Autonomous heavy freight vehicles might well appear safer for surrounding vehicles than the current behemoths, which often seem barely under control of drivers who are possibly unfamiliar with British roads and might be sleep-deprived.

The reason for making this move is that the government wants to promote Britain as a centre for autonomous vehicle development. Japan and several US states already allow autonomous vehicles, and Gothenburg in Sweden is to allow a fleet of 1,000 autonomous Volvos on its roads by 2017. And with robotics seen as a key area of technological development for the UK, this certainly makes sense. But manufacturers will need clear guidelines for what they will and won’t be able to do – and other road users will need to be aware of the rules as well.

Readers' comments (15)

  • OK so you are driving your "normal" car and you want to make a move and check you mirrors, has the auto vehicle seen you is the BIG question, or am you going to take it straight off the road having assumed all is well?

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  • Had to smile when I saw fleet of 1,000 autonomous Volvos. This is not news certain Volvo models have been happily taking off without any input from their drivers for years!

    and helping to pay US lawyers golf club fees!

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  • What happens when the occupant tries to take control and the on board 'intelligence' responds with "I can't let you do that Dave"

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  • Its probably not autonomous vehicles that will be the problem (presuming the software works) its us human drivers!

    Have you ever noticed that drivers who follow the highway code to the letter or drive for minimal fuel usage actually cause frustration to other less logical drivers (us humans).

    The classic one is turning right, in front or behind? Humans know the rules (hopefully!), but break them depending on traffic and what other drivers are doing - we instinctively co-operate and break rules!

    Not sure how Isaac Asimov’s would apply either. Would the autonomous car swerve to avoid some kids blindingly running out in from of it, but risk killing an 80 old pedestrian or hit an oncoming car carrying a mother and baby?

    No doubt what a human would instinctively do, but a robot?

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  • I'd like to know how autonomous vehicles deal with merging from a slip road when the traffic is all held up and there are two very slow moving lanes of traffic on the carriageway. I would imagine that the vehicle would be rather too patient, in its desire to avoid a collision. Worse, if the autonomous vehicle was on the carriageway and felt it couldn't go forwards because of cars encroaching on its field of vision on the left, it might stop and just let a continuous stream of vehicles join the carriageway in front of it. Especially if it was all Audis, the drivers of which do not use their indicators and wouldn't dream of letting someone go in front of them. Quite annoying for cars behind. Finally what if two autonomous vehicles met, how could they decide which goes first ? They might just stop forever. It might all work in ultra polite Gothenberg, but I doubt they'd cope with the Coventry rush-hour.

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  • There is an interesting debate here. You can look back at the early days of the Railways for parallels. In the the early days of the railway in the UK (some may say the heyday) private companies ran the railway for profit. Each having their own rules and instructions. However as their popularity grew and they became more widely used the public perception shifted from this being a private asset to one owned by the public. This perception shift meant that when accidents happened the public outcry grew ever louder. The same will happen with autonomous cars. Legislation will be introduced and to manage the car, the programmer and the systems. Say for example in the result of a potential head on collision does a car swerve left or right? If one goes left and one right you still have a head on!! SO legislation will be required to mandate the rules. Look at the tight legislation regarding the railways and you will see that the driver less car has a long long way to go.

    I foresee that the driver less car will mean car ownership dies, you will order a car it will turn up take you to your destination. You will not be able to afford to leave it sitting on the drive for 22 hours a day not doing anything. The maintenance costs alone will be prohibitive.

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  • Hope the position system is better than my GPS. Losing satellite contact could be interesting, best avoid tunnels.

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  • I have no problem with a robot driving me on guided rails. Beyond that, no thank you.

    My vision for future transport briefly, is for two / four people vehicles that run on rails or glide via a guide.
    They would be completely automatic, very fast, plus no more waiting for the next train or bus to come along.
    No more empty buses or train carriages that don't pay or standing room only. Every traveler would be guaranteed a seat. Just a brief out line, to much to put here.

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  • This goes back to other driverless car articles and in my view giving up sitting behind the steering wheel is hardly any price to pay for the far superior advantages of letting a computer do all the work. At the risk of repeating myself I can’t wait until I have my Pod Car sitting on the drive and after sitting comfortably inside and providing the information to the computer as to where I want to go, just sitting back and enjoying the journey.
    With the computer processing time measured in millisecond there’ll be no more four and five seconds compounded delays while other drivers realise the traffic lights have turned from red to green. All in the queue will move off together. The computer will analyse the available routes and choose the best to balance the traffic density. We could be travelling at well over 80 mph with only a meter between one vehicle and the next safely vastly increasing existing roads capacity. Pushing the envelope still further induction disc set in the road would overcome the distance issues with battery technology enabling us all to dump the internal combustion engine once and for all leave poor old Boris and others to ponder from where the cash will come from next.
    Individual vehicle ownership would keep manufacturing going so no loss of jobs or government revenue and best of all we would have the potential to arrive at our destination without the symptoms of an imminent heart attack.
    Forget HS2, use that money to fund a real twenty first century technology and leave metal wheel on metal track to the likes of Hornby!

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  • Interesting that the focus here is on technical issues. In reality, these are likely to be the least challenging obstacles to implementation.

    We had some interesting input on insurance when I was a part of the team writing the Foresight report on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems.

    For example, who picks up the tab when a driverless car is involved in a fatal accident?

    Will insurance companies offer huge discounts for people who go driverless?

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