Driverless cars: congestion will get worse before it gets better

Rush hour traffic jam

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The term ‘driverless car’ fell right into the driving seat in 2016, and it has rapidly become far more than just a conversation piece.

The advanced autonomous cars are coming, along with an array of claims and speculation around this technological advance to motoring.

Kitted-out with the latest sensors and camera systems, driverless cars are already being trialled across the UK, in Milton Keynes, Bristol, Coventry and Greenwich, in south east London.

Driverless cars are already legal in some states in the US, with Uber and Google conducting extensive trials. However, the UK is set to be at the forefront of driverless technology, with more research and  trials in the pipeline.

Cutting delays?

The movement towards driverless cars has come from claims they’re safer and more reliable, and a stress-free form of transport. Also, that they will work wonders for cutting transport delays.

But how? A Department of Transport report suggests that the average time spent delayed on city roads at rush hour will fall by 12.4% when 25% of vehicles are driverless.

Tests carried out on major roads show that driverless cars typically cut journey times by up to 11%. The actual outcomes are determined by the autonomous car’s parameters and how they are set to drive, which still requires a lot more research.

John Hayes, transport minister, said: "This exciting and extensive study shows that driverless cars could vastly improve the flow of traffic in our towns and cities, offering huge benefits to motorists, including reduced delays and more reliable journey times."

…or causing congestion?

Although the above sounds promising, it’s thought things might actually have to get worse before they get better.

The government estimated that, once 1 in 4 vehicles on the road are driverless, congestion could spike. But then, when driverless cars make up 50% - 75% of the cars on the roads, congestion will reduce.

The reasoning for the increased congestion in the early days of adoption? It’s because driverless cars, according to the Department for Transport, are ‘too cautious’.

Researchers found that a driverless car reacts to the behaviour of the cars around it. So the full potential of driverless cars will not be felt until majority of cars on the road are driverless.

Before then, they will be programmed to be wary of any car driven manually, reducing their speed and journey times.

How will driverless cars impact insurance?

It’s predicted that driverless cars will actually have a positive effect on insurance premiums.

The vast majority of collisions are the result of human error, so driverless cars should theoretically reduce the number of such incidents.

And because collisions and other impact accidents are responsible for 80% - 90% of car insurance claims, their effective elimination should lead to lower insurance premiums.

Despite this, the legality of who would be at fault should an accident occur in a driverless car is still a largely grey area. At this stage, determining whether it should be the driver or the car who would be deemed to be in control is key.

Under current rules, driverless cars are not permitted on the road in the UK without a human present, who is able to take control of the vehicle as required and who is deemed to be liable in the event of an accident caused by the car.

The government has announced that it will change the laws governing car insurance so that insurance for driverless cars will become mandatory, with a ‘single insurer’ approach being adopted.

Under this model, the car will be covered by the same policy both when it is being driven by a human and when it is in driverless mode.

The insurer will not be liable if the driver has modified the automatic driving system in any way, nor if the system is hacked. Who would be liable in such a circumstance has yet to be decided, although there are some suggestions that liability could rest with the system manufacturer in the case of hacking.

Further details of the government’s approach will be revealed when the Modern Transport Bill is put before Parliament later in 2017.

What could you achieve in the time freed-up by a driverless commute? Click here to find out.

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