Are we ready for driverless cars?

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Cars that drive themselves sound a bit sci-fi. But many modern vehicles already come with some kind of self-drive technology.

You only have to think of autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning systems, active cruise control and automated parking.

So it won’t be long before fully autonomous cars hit the roads. Trials are already underway in several cities and experts predict that driverless cars will be a common sight in the UK by the middle of 2020. But are we really ready for the motoring revolution? It's seems some are far more ready than others...

Drivers take a back seat

If and when autonomous vehicles are introduced onto the UK's highways and byways, more than a quarter (26%) of motorists would be happy to take a nap and let the car take on the traffic, according to research from WhatCar?

The study of more than 900 motorists also found chatting to passengers, internet browsing and streaming television shows and films also featured high on the list of things to do while the car does the driving.

When asked what roads would be most suitable for driverless cars, nearly a third (32%) said motorway journeys would be the best, while 18% said city driving would an appealing option for autonomous control.

Almost half (49%) said they would happily hand over control in a traffic jam. The implications of driverless cars taking to the streets stretches way beyond whether motorists will be able to take a nap on the way to work though.

Do we, for example, need to change existing traffic laws? Who is held responsible for an accident if the car has no driver?

The Automated Driving Insurer Group, which is made up of eleven UK motor insurers and led by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Thatcham Research, has been formed to consider these and other issues. It aims to smooth out any bumps in the road to a driverless future.

Safety first

Many people worry about the safety of driverless cars. They question whether we can really trust a computer to drive as well as a human.

The short answer is yes. In fact, computers are probably better drivers than people. Human error is the cause of 94% of road accidents, according to the ABI.

If there’s no human, there’s no human error. A computer doesn’t get distracted, drunk or drowsy.

No wonder KPMG, the consulting firm, predicts that self-driving vehicles could save more than 2,500 lives and prevent more than 25,000 serious accidents a year on Britain’s roads by 2030.

Impact of driverless cars on car insurance

These figures are why the insurance industry is so interested in driverless technology. If accident rates plummet, will your premiums do likewise?

It would certainly be good to think so, especially as the accident and liability risks account for the lion’s share of premiums today (with theft making up most of the balance).

But it will take several years of driverless cars being commonplace before we see what the full effect will be. So keep shopping around in the meantime for the best value car cover.

Technical difficulties

Of course, technology makes mistakes, too. If the computer crashes, or a hacker infiltrates the system, the results could be catastrophic.

So who is to blame if a driverless car has an accident?

There’s no one behind the wheel to take responsibility, so is it the vehicle manufacturer, or maybe the company that developed the car’s computer system?

Perhaps the car dealer could be held accountable or even the maintenance firm?

Liability issues

At the moment, liability rests with the driver, as long as he or she can intervene and override the technology.

But the Automated Driving Insurance Group will look to the future when cars are connected via e-communications – in other words, when they can communicate in real time to other vehicles and traffic controls.

If the driver is not expected to oversee or monitor the vehicle, but relies on the car to make its own decisions, he or she can hardly be to blame if it all goes wrong.

Risk control

Peter Shaw, chief executive of Thatcham Research, says: “Automated driving is developing at pace, and safety is paramount from both a driver’s perspective as well as an insurance risk.

“Working with car manufacturers and insurers, we’ll be researching and testing systems, to provide insight and evaluation of the potential risks and benefits at each step of the way towards a world where cars can drive themselves.”

The Automated Driving Insurer Group will also consider how to manage cars with different levels of automation and how data from individual vehicles will be recorded.

It will feed into ABI policy and work with the Government on shaping the future of automated cars in the UK.

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