With technology having finally caught up with our imaginations, fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) are now poised to join our roads.
Google and Tesla may have been the most famous advocates to date, but the mainstream industry is fast catching up. In January, Mercedes-Benz (see concept car, pictured) revealed it was developing a network of self-driving cars that can be booked using the Uber app.
The UK is gearing up to play a big role in the AV market, with the government’s forthcoming Modern Transport Bill paving the way for insurers to provide cover for partial and full AVs by 2020.
In principle, it’s difficult to dislike AVs. After all, they are set to offer us more freedom than we’ve ever had before. People who might otherwise have been denied the opportunity of driving, perhaps due to blindness or old age, will have the same opportunity to take to the roads as anyone else. The emphasis on the car, rather than the driver, will naturally level the playing field in terms of insurance too; with young and first-time owners enjoying much lower premiums.
The technology’s green credentials are impressive too, with the focus on batterypowered technology, meaning that true AVs will finally put the car in harmony with the environment. Built-in road chargers are also tipped to remove the last barrier to renewable vehicle technology – so-called ‘range anxiety’, due to mileage limitations.
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It is the potential of AVs to improve safety, however, that is set to revolutionise our roads.
According to the Association of British Insurers, some 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by human error. It claims that existing Autonomous Emergency Braking technology has already lowered the rate of personal injury claims arising from low speed collisions by 20%.
Having the ability to simply jump into an AV also has the potential to reduce the number of drivers taking to the roads under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
A question of ethics
With such a host of advantages on offer, it’s difficult to see then any possible drawback to driverless cars. Delve deeper, however, and you’ll quickly stumble across a fairly hefty ethical dilemma: Should driverless cars be programmed to sacrifice the few for the many?
In theory, potential owners have shown themselves to be true altruists, with 76% of people participating in research for Amazon Mechanical Turk (2015) saying that it would be more moral for AVs to sacrifice one passenger rather than killing 10 pedestrians. Asked whether they would buy a car that felt the same though, and they quickly changed their tune.
As other experts are finding, this is no black and white scenario. For instance, could the advent of driverless cars lead to pedestrians being more blasé when crossing the road – or other drivers in manual cars taking greater risks? In which case, should an AV occupant really have to bear the brunt of such behaviour?
For its part, the insurance industry is clear that AVs will need to obey the rules of the road for any policy to stand, with car manufacturers required to adhere to a single set of guidelines that keep them in line with highways’ legislation. For example, a car manufacturer could not program a car to avoid an obstacle in the road by mounting the pavement if a pedestrian would then be put at risk – a move that might otherwise be construed as the human factor in manual cars. But make a party of schoolchildren the obstacle in the road and the ethical argument becomes a lot less straightforward
From an insurer’s point of view, both the car driver and the manufacturer may both be liable for any incidents. This has been backed by the UK government’s Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which proposes that insurance cover for self-driving cars must offer protection for both times when the driver is in control and when the vehicle is in charge. What is clear is that in navigating their way on to our roads, AVs are throwing some very thought-provoking questions our way. What do you think?
AVs IN THE UK
London, Coventry, Milton Keynes and Bristol are already trialling driverless ‘pods’ and buses, with a lorry ‘platoon’ also planned for testing near Carlisle. Research commissioned by KPMG on behalf of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders predicts that the UK will be a key player in AVs, establishing a centre of excellence for connected AV technology that will see it produce 2.4 million vehicles a year by 2030.