Thousands of accidents occur on the UK’s roads every year, which causes billions of pounds in damages and insurance costs, not to mention the far greater human cost of injury, trauma and death. In a relatively short space of time, however, road traffic accidents could be resigned to the scrapheap of history.
The past three years have seen an incredible advancement in the pace of driverless car technology development. A fully automated self-driving car may only be years, rather than decades, away from a full commercial release. The overall impact of this innovative technology – one that was until recently limited to the realm of science fiction – can currently only be guessed at but it has the potential to alter the face of motoring in the most fundamental of ways: by delivering major benefits for road safety, emissions and congestion.
What is driverless technology?
A vehicle that can drive itself, accurately and safely conveying its passengers to their chosen destination without accident or incident, has been the dream of automotive innovators for decades, and it’s very close to becoming a reality.
Various forms of driverless technology have been commercially available for years and recently they have grown much more diverse and sophisticated. Mitsubishi first introduced autonomous cruise control to the market in 1995 and, in 2009, Ford began to sell the first car capable of self-parking through the use of sensor arrays linked to the onboard computer. The following year, Google announced that it had started to develop a fully self-driving car and, by 2013, its test fleet of vehicles had already clocked up more than half a million miles without causing a single accident.
During this time, a multitude of other driverless technologies have been developed and made commercially available. These include parking assist sensors, threat detection systems, automated braking systems and driver monitors that detect drowsiness or intoxication.
These technologies, however, are currently only able to assist drivers in their manoeuvring of the vehicle or alert them to danger. A fully autonomous vehicle, capable of performing any given driving manoeuvre without fault, is the ultimate prize that so many developers from the technology and automotive sectors have been striving to achieve. According to Google and American manufacturer Tesla Motors, the wait will be over within the next three years.
How will driverless technology eliminate accidents?
‘Autopilot is a good thing to have in planes, and we should have it in cars too.’ – Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla
Even the cars commercially available today that have limited forms of driverless technology are having a marked impact on reducing the amount of accidents that occur in the UK.
Currently, 71% of all car insurance claims result from a vehicle reversing badly and 23% result from parking incidents. Accidents caused by complicated but low-speed manoeuvres like this are much more common than when driving at 70mph along a motorway or dual carriageway.
Cars equipped with self-parking technology and remote sensors to help with reversing manoeuvres are already widely available and are reliable. As these technologies become increasingly widespread they are also quickly falling in price. Analysts believe that in the next three years, the majority of car manufacturers will offer them at prices that are viable for the mass market. If this is the case, the bad habits of poor parking and reckless reversing will quickly be eliminated.
The real game-changer in terms of achieving complete road safety, however, will be the impact of the completely autonomous car. Taking human driving error completely out of the equation will be the real test of the technology’s posited safety benefits. If the end products of developers such as Google and Tesla are able to live up to their designers’ vision, they will drive safely at high speeds and anticipate any potential danger from obstacles or other vehicles, while successfully completing any manoeuvre that a human driver could perform.
If the reaction times of fully driverless cars are as good as their creators claim they will be, then even the most horrific motorway collisions will be consigned to history along with the bumps, dings and nudges incurred by poor parking jobs and pootling around town.
According to consultancy firm KPMG’s predictions, self-driving vehicles will prevent more than 25,000 serious accidents per year on Britain’s roads by 2030. The innovation and ambition doesn’t stop at the creation of a single autonomous vehicle, however.
The next level in improving the safety, efficiency and convenience of driving requires the systematic linking of driverless cars. So, instead of individual vehicles enabled with driverless technology making decisions on their own, the ultimate vision for autonomous driving sees all cars on the road all capable of being networked together. That way, all the data that every car produces on a given stretch of road could be collected and correlated by a central network that would regulate the speed of the vehicles. This would reduce congestion and provide a fail safe against accidents and systems failures.
Putting on the brakes – what holds back driverless technology adoption?
Admittedly, the prospect of every driver sitting back and relaxing while their vehicles smoothly and seamlessly manoeuvre themselves around the M25 without traffic jams or incidents still seems to be the stuff of movies, rather than reality. Research from the AA suggests that the majority of drivers prefer to be in charge of their vehicle. The technology is nearly ready, the autonomous car may well be ready by 2018-2020, but critically their widespread introduction to the UK’s roads may still take some years.
This is because the driverless car manufacturers will still need to jump all manner of social and legal hurdles, even once their autonomous product is complete. Firstly, there’s the question of money: even with driverless technology prices falling, the introduction of fully autonomous cars is likely to be quite uneven as people of varying income levels buy them at different stages, creating a slow shift from driven cars to driverless ones.
With a mix of driven/driverless cars on the road, driverless cars will have to be capable of accounting for the human error of other drivers. Granted, that’s exactly what the likes of Google are currently counting on, but their calculations will need to be exact if they are to jump through the inevitable legal hoops.
Adapting the law takes time, especially when the factor that causes its re-evaluation is so fundamentally revolutionary. There are all manner of legal discussions occurring right now in the run-up to the advent of driverless cars, as well as a huge number of pertinent questions that haven’t even been asked yet. Primarily, they concern liability in the event of an accident: would the manufacturer be at fault, or the technology provider? With other key considerations, such as speed limits, road maintenance requirements, connectivity issues, insurance and criminal liability, it could be years before the revisions of the relevant laws are finalised.
Another equally critical factor that might delay the introduction of the autonomous car is plain and simple human scepticism. Many of us would love to let the car do all the work but not everyone is so keen to hand over their safety on the road to a computer.
The future of driving, without driving
Cars of the future will feature more driverless technology, with some, most or perhaps even all of them eventually offering fully automated modes. During the past decade, the question seems to have sure-footedly shifted from ‘if?’ to ‘when?’. The most optimistic proponents of driverless tech say that autonomous cars will hit the market by 2020 at the latest. Those with a more reserved view believe that 2030-2040 is a more reasonable timeline for widespread introduction to the mass market.
One thing is for sure, however: the concept is sound and it’s backed by solid demand and a growing depth of expertise from some of the world’s most innovative companies. Field testing has shown that even when system malfunctions are taken into account, computers make better drivers than humans. It may take years to emphatically prove that sentiment – perhaps longer still to see it put into practice across the world – but the reality of an accident-free road seems closer now than ever before.