Is Britain Prepared for Driverless Cars?

autonomous vehicles

The King’s Speech brought forth a series of significant announcements, including the introduction of fresh legislation governing the deployment of autonomous vehicles in the UK. In response to this development, Mark Trimbee, an avid motorist and CEO of private number plate provider Regtransfers, delves into the impact of growing interests in self-driving automobiles – voicing concern about the need to approach this emerging technology with a degree of caution.

The road ahead for driverless cars offers equal measures of opportunity and challenge. While the King’s recent words on the matter draw a significant step towards realising the potential of self-driving cars, they also highlight the present issues in security and safety. As it stands, self-driving vehicles have a way to go before they can realistically replace human drivers. Even so, as a nation, we must tread carefully into this new tech.

A Transportation Revolution in the Making

The core of this development – the Automated Vehicles Bill – is a legislative measure poised to ignite a “transport revolution” by enabling the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles. It’s designed to cement the UK’s position as a global leader in the high-tech, high-growth autonomous vehicle sector.

By providing one of the world’s “most comprehensive legal frameworks” for self-driving vehicles, the King expressed that the bill prioritises safety. This initiative carries wide-ranging implications, for both  the automotive industry and the broader economy.

Boosting Economic Growth and Job Creation

The government’s vision is crystal clear: the bill is expected to unlock the growth potential of the autonomous vehicle sector in the UK. In doing so, it could create a market valued at up to £42 billion and generate 38,000 skilled jobs by 2035. This bold step aims to propel the UK into a leading position within this rapidly evolving industry.

Prioritising Safety Above All

The central premise behind the automated vehicles bill is safety. It contends that self-driving vehicles have the potential to enhance transport safety, convenience, and accessibility, ultimately improving the lives of millions.

In 2022, there were approximately 1,695 fatalities and 136,022 casualties of varying severity due to road traffic accidents. With a reported 88% of accidents currently attributed to human error, the prevailing consensus is that the introduction of automated vehicles has the potential to significantly reduce costs, injuries, and fatalities. Furthermore, driverless cars have the potential to empower individuals across the country, making daily commutes to school or work more efficient and safe. Benefits such as these cannot be ignored.

These are strong, compelling arguments in favour of self-driven cars. Given the clear benefits, one could argue that we should make every effort to enter mass production and deployment. However, before doing so, there are a number of current challenges facing the technology that must be overcome before widespread adoption is truly viable.

Challenges and Considerations

We’ve only scratched the surface of self-driving cars, and already, several key concerns have already come to light, prompting caution and careful consideration before fully embracing this technology.

Security Concerns

In an era where smart products, applications, and wearable technology are already posing security challenges, the advent of fully automated vehicles introduces new dimensions of risk. A car relying entirely on computer systems could become susceptible to hacking, with potentially severe consequences. The gravity of this threat intensifies if a large number of automated cars share the same network, increasing the potential for malicious activities.

Initial Cost Barrier

While the potential benefits of self-driving cars are evident, the initial costs are substantial. A self-driving car in the UK currently comes with a price tag starting at £50,000 or more, placing such vehicles out of reach for many individuals. However, as we have seen before, costs of new tech are driven down over time, meaning that self-driving cars will become more affordable for the average car owner in time.

The Ethical Dilemma

One of the significant ethical dilemmas posed by autonomous cars revolves around everyday road traffic situations where there is no clear “black and white” or binary solution that guarantees 100% safety. When faced with a choice between two options, both of which could result in harm, either to pedestrians or passengers, questions arise about who determines the logic governing these choices, and why. In such instances, the manufacturers responsible for the intelligence behind self-driving cars and the decision-making algorithms may find themselves navigating a complex ethical minefield, with accusations of “playing God.”

Potential Mechanical Failures

As with any machine, there is always room for error. In a world where a car is entirely automated, the stakes are high, putting passengers and pedestrians at risk in the event of a malfunction. This could manifest in systems erroneously activating or deactivating when they shouldn’t, leading to potential hazards such as fires from the car’s batteries or breakdowns resulting in a loss of control that leads to accidents.

Recent Concerns

Beyond the inherent challenges of self-driving technology, recent developments in the industry have raised alarm bells. Just last year, approximately 400 autonomous car systems were reportedly involved in road accidents.

Recent news from the US highlights further difficulties faced by autonomous vehicles, including those operated by General Motors’ Cruise division. Concerns include the technology’s vulnerability to hacking, difficulties in recognizing hazards like large holes in the road, and challenges in identifying children in certain scenarios, posing risks of accidents. Each of these issues has led to a recall of all 950 vehicles to perform software updates.

While autonomous vehicle companies assert the safety of their systems, incidents such as these raise important questions about the readiness of this technology.

Parliamentary Endorsement

The announcement of the automated vehicles bill received a warm welcome from Members of Parliament on the Transport Committee. This parliamentary body had previously called for new legislation to address safety concerns, as outlined in their September report on the future of self-driving vehicles. It appears that, at least for the time being, their calls may have been answered in the form of this new bill.

The Road Ahead

As the UK navigates its way towards the future of autonomous vehicles, the industry, regulators, and the public must come together to address a range of current challenges. From security and data privacy to the ethical dilemmas posed by self-driving technology, this is a journey characterised by opportunities and responsibilities, where innovation goes hand in hand with safety.

The path ahead promises a transformative future. However it is, in this author’s view, a path that must be traversed with care.


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