Driverless cars get the green light

Driverless car technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, and most major car manufacturers are working on their own versions. In the US, Google is deep into road trials of its autonomous vehicles, and Apple is rumoured to be thinking of joining the fray.

Questions to be addressed

But an innovation as revolutionary as driverless cars begs many questions:
  • who is responsible for the vehicle?
  • who is liable in the event of an accident?
  • what happens if the car’s computers are hacked?
  • can a driverless car operate with no-one in it?
  • can you use an autonomous car if you are blind or partially sighted, or otherwise physically impaired?
  • what about when you’re over the alcohol limit?

Changing attitudes

Then there’s a whole clutch of questions around the behaviour of other road users. For example, will pedestrians stop using crossing and simply step out into the road, safe in the knowledge that cars will stop for them? Same applies to cyclists, and drivers of ‘normal’ cars. If so, what will be the impact on traffic flow and congestion? And what about carjackers? Step in front of a car you fancy, and it will roll to a stop at your feet. Deeply worrying for anyone to contemplate, especially those with children on board, and women driving alone.

Pilot programmes

As the world adjusts to the driverless phenomenon, the government is backing four trials in Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Bristol and Coventry to measure the success of the technology, determine the insurance and legal implications and gauge the public’s reaction. It hopes for a solid return on its investment of £19 million from a global industry that is expected to be worth billions in the next decade.

In the meantime…

The autonomous Meridian shuttle will run in Greenwich and looks a bit like an elongated golf buggy. Then there’s the prototype driverless pods in Coventry and in Milton Keynes, trundling between the railway stations and shopping centres. The Wildcat is probably the most exciting vehicle. It’s a modified military jeep being tested in Bristol. In the trials, a fully qualified driver is on hand to take over the controls if necessary.

Cracking the code

The next step is a code of practice, due in the spring, that will provide the framework for tests in real-life scenarios. A full review of domestic regulations won’t take place until 2017 and will most likely involve alterations to the MOT test and amendments to the Highway Code. The review will also look at the legal implications of a collision involving a driverless car and consider whether a higher standard of “driving” should be demanded of automated vehicles.

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