The big questions about driverless cars

Cars that drive themselves – once the preserve of science fiction films and comics – will soon hit our roads for real. But what will this new era really look like?

It may well be that the next generation of motorists will be more used to getting about in autonomous pods, but the technology is here today and it’s worth considering how the transition is going to take place over the coming years.

How far off are driverless cars?

In a very real sense, they’re here already in the everyday features we probably take for granted. Today cars that can park themselves for example and operate cruise control systems that adjust your speed to keep a safe distance from others around you. Many new cars will guide you back into the middle of your lane if you start to drift, or apply the brakes if you’re heading for a collision.

The most advanced cars today operate at what’s known as level 2 or ‘partial’ automation. However full autonomy is at level 5. That’s what we all really mean when we talk about driverless cars, those which can take care of every aspect of driving without human interaction..

All of Tesla’s new cars are already being fitted with the hardware necessary for full self-driving capability, and CEO Elon Musk claims the software will be ready by the end of the year. Other manufacturers, including traditional carmakers such as Ford and BMW, as well as tech giants Google, plan to have their own autonomous cars on the road within the next five years.

 

Will they be popular?

The transition to a society reliant on driverless vehicles is in some ways daunting. In fact our survey for the 2016 RAC Report on Motoring, found 62% of drivers revealed the thought of driverless cars on the road scared them, and just 25% were excited by the prospect. There are of course concerns about the risks that autonomous motoring will bring, along with some scepticism about its benefits. This is because we are really at the start of the journey and much of the technology and transport infrastructure necessary to enable safe autonomous driving is yet to be in place or even developed.

 

Will they make journeys quicker?

In part, the answer to this question depends on the answer to the one above. Driverless cars have great potential for making journey times quicker, but only if a critical mass of people are using them.

A recent study by the Department for Transport estimates that, in a world where all cars are fully autonomous, motorway journey times would be, on average, 11% shorter than they are now. But if only a fifth of cars are fully autonomous, journey times would only be cut by 4% on average – even if the other four-fifths are equipped with some driver assistance technology.

 

 

Will they be safer?

That’s certainly the idea, and one of the main reasons why the Government is enthusiastic about the development of driverless cars.

 After all, 1,800 people are killed on Britain’s roads every year and another 22,000 seriously injured. Driver error is the most common cause of casualties, recorded as contributing to around three-quarters of all accidents. Take driver error out of the equation, the theory goes, and the number of accidents will fall dramatically. That means fewer injuries, fewer deaths, lower insurance premiums and clearer roads.

 

 

But will they really be safer?

Despite that logic, only 27% of the motorists surveyed for our Report on Motoring said they thought driverless cars would make our roads safer. Why? 51% thought that the new technology would lead to complacency among drivers, and therefore cause more accidents.

Of more concern is the potential for something to go wrong with the technology itself. 70% of motorists told us they were worried about the reliability of driverless cars’ software. Or, as the former head of Google’s self-driving car program put it recently, ‘I’ve had people say, “Look, my laptop crashes every day – what if that’s my car?”’ Hacking’s another concern: 66% are worried someone might break into the cars’ computers.

 

What will they mean for breakdowns?

Even if driverless cars are involved in fewer collisions, they will inevitably still suffer problems and require assistance. They will still have tyres that burst and batteries that go flat in the winter for example. The new technology will present new challenges for technicians to get to grips with at the roadside – just as they are already having to do with electric cars, for example.

On the other hand, autonomous cars will, by necessity, be connected cars. They’ll therefore be constantly collecting and sharing information about themselves, which can be used to facilitate pro-active and predictive breakdown services.

 

Who’s responsible?

Of course, the arrival of driverless cars will necessitate changes to laws that were designed for a world where every car has a driver. Will we still need driving licences, even if we’re not really doing the driving? Maybe not. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has recently published new draft regulations that would allow people to use fully autonomous cars without a licence.

However, if the law requires drivers to be present at the wheel at all times and ready to intervene at the first sign of tech failure, then they will have to take over and be able to drive legally.

Insurance laws will need updating too. At the moment, it’s drivers that are insured – and the driver at fault who ultimately pays. The Government plans to change this for autonomous cars, so that an insurer covers both the driver and the vehicle. If a fault in the vehicle causes an accident, the insurer would pay out to the victim, but could then claim against the manufacturer.

In fact, legislators around the world will need to reconsider all sorts of driving laws. What about drink driving, for example? Will it be legal to be ‘in charge’ of an autonomous car after a few drinks? Of course, it won’t while cars are only partially autonomous, but perhaps it will be once full autonomy is achieved and we simply hop in and out of pods to get from A to B with no need to concern ourselves about who or what is driving.

 

Who owns the data?

Another controversial issue for legislators to grapple with concerns the wealth of data each car will have to collect – including personal information about the trips its owner makes.

 To whom will all this data belong? The owner of the car? The manufacturer? Should the police be able to demand this data in the event of an accident? What about insurers?

 

Will this mean the end of car ownership?

There’s already speculation that driverless cars will make the idea of car ownership obsolete. If you could simply summon a car through a touch of your smartphone and have it take you wherever you wanted to go – with no driver to pay – would you bother buying a car yourself? Uber’s betting you wouldn’t, and it’s already begun trialling driverless taxis on the streets of Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

But there are many millions of people who enjoy the driving experience and there’s no reason to suppose that motoring clubs and enthusiasts harking after the ‘good old days’ of motoring won’t continue to be popular.

 

What does this all mean for businesses?

It’s easy to imagine how all this will affect businesses and their fleets of vehicles. Shorter journey times and fewer accidents will both improve efficiency and help keep employees safe. As the vehicle drives them to their destination, employees will be free to work, making them even more productive.

Of course, the greater reliance on technology will make it more important than ever to conduct thorough walk-round checks and make sure all vehicles are in full working condition. Good practice today will remain good practice in the future.