Warm leatherette: sort out security and let autonomy flourish

News editor

Driverless vehicle technology promises to make the roads safer and the UK richer, but whilst the technology roadmap is clear, the concept still poses more questions than it answers


My first car was a used Austin Maestro and selling it turned out to be the best moment I’d had with the four-wheeled money pit.

Back then, living and working in rural England necessitated car ownership and being a frugal sort I learned the hard way that buying cheap meant buying twice.

“My son’s in the army,” said the seller of the erratic auto “and he uses these things for target practise.”

Undeterred by this disparaging dismissal, money changed hands and I sped headfirst into a world defined by pitying looks from garage mechanics rather than the wonders of a grand tour.

Quite by accident the objectionable jalopy made good when rear-ended by an over eager amber gambler, an act that saw her retail value recouped from the insurers and one that prompted her London-bound owner to sell up and say goodbye to motoring misery.

It is fair to say to say that cars and I have had a rocky relationship, and – money aside – this has had a lot to do with prangs experienced in them, notably in 1989 when friends and I hit a Land Rover at 50 mph in a Citroen BX. Land Rover 1 – 0 Citroen BX.

If Google et al have their way there may come a time when accidents are largely eradicated via vehicle autonomy and this week we witnessed Volvo going public on interfaces that transfer control of a vehicle to its autonomous driving mode; whilst in Japan, Toyota started motorway trials of Highway Teammate, a vehicle equipped with automated driving functions that it hopes to commercialise by around 2020.

Just this morning Jaguar Land Rover and EPSRC announced funding worth £11m for an autonomous vehicle research programme that will take five ideas forward.

People with symphorophilia will likely disagree, but ongoing efforts toward vehicle autonomy and enhanced driver, road user and pedestrian safety can only be a good thing in a world where around 1.2 million people are killed annually on the roads.

The road to autonomy and greater overall connectivity is not, however, entirely without speed bumps and potholes, as seen this week with the publication of a survey from Adrian Flux on the very subject.

Echoing a similar survey conducted for IMechE in 2014, the specialist insurance broker found 70% of its respondents unenthusiastic about self-driving cars, with 45% preferring to have control of their vehicle.

Nearly 5% of the 1,784 who took part in the survey are worried about cars being hacked, as well they might be with highly publicised hacks being demonstrated, notably on a Fiat Chrysler Jeep.

It could be argued that the hacks have often been carried out in controlled circumstances by researchers looking for holes in security, but that isn’t to say organised criminal gangs aren’t far behind in their efforts to appropriate vehicles for nefarious gains.

And what of liability when things do go wrong in the connected car? The consequences can be quite detrimental to a brand, a point made recently by SBD’s Mike Parris.

Speaking at a Cambridge Wireless event at the Transport Systems Catapult in Milton Keynes, he pointed out that vehicle branding is all-pervasive on your shiny new car and when things go wrong, it’s the brand that gets the blame.

He told delegates: “If you think about the recent Fiat Chrysler Jeep hack that made all the headlines back in August, there’s a very good argument to say that Harmons, the head unit supplier and Sprint as the TSP were culpable but only Fiat Chrysler made the headlines, which is interesting because that means now the quality of your code is the quality of your brand, but it might actually be the quality of your supplier code is the quality of your brand. If that wasn’t bad enough, in most cases suppliers don’t let OEMs see their source code.”

And who’s to blame if your driverless car has an accident? It’s a thorny debate, although it seems increasingly likley that, in the interests of getting the technology to market, car-makers will shoulder this particular responsibility. Indeed, Volvo this week joined Mercedes and Google in announcing that it will accept full liability for accidents occuring whenever one of its cars is operating autonomously.

If you’re heading to Battle of Ideas later this month you’ll be able to sit in on a discussion on the future of driving, with autonomy touted as one development that might actually keep people interested in road transport. More on that here.

In the interim, vehicle autonomy and connectivity represent a prize worth fighting for, and one that engineers in Britain are well placed to win. KPMG estimate that the burgeoning industry could create 320,000 jobs in the UK and deliver £51bn to the economy as well as reduce serious road traffic accidents by more than 25,000 a year by 2030.

Earlier this week This is Money reported that only a few hundred Austin Maestros are still registered in Britain, and the marque will be joined on the scrapheap of automotive extinction by peers including the Austin Allegro, Morris Marina, and Vauxhall Cavalier.

Time and technology moves on, with the advent of vehicle autonomy and connectivity promising to deliver new driver experiences and the potential to reassess motoring as we know it. The questions remain, however, over whether the car buying public will embrace these advances and be confident their vehicle – and the gizmos within it – is solely under their control.