Chris Petropoulou, Consultant, Miramar Global
I was interested to read the UK government has made a firm statement regarding self-driving cars. According to The Times in August 2022: “Self-driving cars could be on Britain’s roads as early as next year under a £100 million government plan to make autonomous vehicles safe. The Department for Transport (DfT) said it would introduce laws to allow for the introduction and that the self- driving industry could create up to 38,000 jobs and be worth £42 billion for the economy. The government wants self-driving vehicles to be used for deliveries and public transport by 2025, but some cars, coaches and lorries with self-driving features could be allowed on motorways from next year. About £34 million of research will go towards supporting safety developments to inform new laws, £20 million will be used to help launch commercial self-driving services, and £6 million will be used for market research”
There are so many positives for us to recognise: people who struggle with disabilities would benefit from this technology advantage, and there is the much discussed environmental Impact of autonomous cars. Most of the driverless vehicles in existence now are fully electric. Whilst the battery charge is still indirectly contributing to emissions (unless its powered entirely by clean energy), it is at a much lower level than traditional petrol or diesel engines, also cause less air pollution by using less fuel and energy when driving. Most fuel is burned when driving at high speeds, braking and re-accelerating excessively. The driving style of autonomous vehicles cut these factors out – meaning less fuel is burned and less battery power consumed. This sounds progressive and a huge leap in the right direction.
My interest also stems from the regulation that we will need in place in terms of how we make self-driving vehicles a reality. While the government has made a statement regarding its next investment, there are still questions in how we approach to the legality of testing and using on public roads, plans to regulate driverless technology and also insurance liability. Some of this feels very much still in the development stage.
While self-driving vehicles have not become a reality as soon as developers anticipated, we are drawing ever closer. Back in November 2018, the Law Commission of England, and Wales, along with the Scottish Law Commission, issued a preliminary consultation on the legislative and regulatory changes that may be needed to accommodate the introduction of automated or driverless vehicles. The consultation was part of a review of the legal framework for automated vehicles and their use as part of public transport networks and on-demand passenger services. The consultation focused on safety as part of the design process and covered these main areas:
- Safety issues relating to the vehicles themselves: accident investigation, training, and examinations for users of the vehicles and also who would be the regulator
- Changes to the rules of the road and protocols for the way a driverless car should react (for example: to the passing of an emergency vehicle) and how that would differ from a car with a driver on the road at the same time
- Criminal and civil liability for the actions of vehicles, including civil liability under certain provisions of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018, which came into force in July 2018.
In October 2019, the Law Commissions published a second consultation. Then in June 2022, published a consultation on the need and options for regulating remote driving on public roads (Law Commission: Law Commission starts debate on how to regulate remote driving (24 June 2022). Remote driving technology, where the driver does not have full line of sight and may be in a remote operations centre miles from the vehicle, already exists in controlled environments such as warehouses, farms and mines. The latest Law Commission paper focuses on remote driving on roads shared with other road users.
The Law Commission highlights the following challenges:
- Connectivity: how to ensure a reliable connection between the remote driver and vehicle and mitigate safety risks if there is a loss in connectivity
- Situational awareness: how to ensure drivers remain aware of their surroundings through a screen without, for example, braking and acceleration.
- Keeping alert: how to overcome the risk of fatigue and other distractions for remote drivers
- Cybersecurity: how to prevent unauthorised takeover of vehicles from hackers and cyber criminals.
The consultation has highlights uncertainties and risks in the way current legislation applies to remote driving. It seeks views on new regulations to address these challenges. The matter is so complex. From judgement calls, we also arrive at moral dilemmas. In the event of an accident, should driverless cars be programmed to protect the occupants of the vehicle at all costs, or should they be programmed to do the least amount of damage to people and other vehicles that could be in its way? Should a driverless car hit a pregnant woman or swerve into a wall and kill its five passengers? Should they swerve to avoid a dog and risk a collision with another car? These are just a small number of examples of potential real-life situations a driverless car would have to be programmed to deal with. Regardless of whether a vehicle is self-driving or not, at some point in the process there is human intervention. People make mistakes, there is no getting away from that.
Cybersecurity is another really interesting point in today’s environment. Currently a cyber criminal’s usual end game is financial gain, but we must be aware of the chaos and calamity unauthorised take overs or vehicles on public roads would be.
There remains a sizeable technological gap between technology assisted vehicles and fully autonomous vehicles. This distinction would need to be reflected in any updates to UK and EU legislation as well as some significant investment before we are really ready to practically embrace the self-driving state on our roads.