Driverless cars – what’s the truth behind the hype?

There’s been so much hype about fully autonomous, driverless cars anyone would think they would be a common sight on our streets from tomorrow.

But there are a whole variety of reasons why they may take much longer to reach mass adoption than some supporters would have you believe.

So what is the truth, or at least some of it, about this much-publicised transport mode of the future?

Government backing announced

Autonomous vehicles will soon be tested extensively on UK public roads thanks to a new code of practice published by the government and backed by a £20m fund for collaborative research.

Full details were recently announced and the new code of practice provides industry with the framework they need to safely trial autonomous cars in real-life scenarios, and to create more sophisticated versions of the models that already exist.

The measures are planned to place the UK at the forefront of the intelligent mobility market, expected to be worth £900billion by 2025.

They are part of a £100m initiative that the Chancellor announced in the Spring Budget for research into intelligent mobility. Government-backed initiatives involving driverless cars have already been announced in four cities: London, Bristol, Coventry and Milton Keynes

The government now wants bidders to put forward proposals in areas such as safety, reliability, how vehicles can communicate with each other, the environment around them and how driverless vehicles can help give an ageing population greater independence. Successful bidders will then match project funding with their own money.

However, there are many issues to consider before driverless cars become a common feature on our roads.

Ethical dilemmas

Driverless cars will be programmed to avoid collisions, especially with people. But what if a pedestrian steps out into the road suddenly and the car does not have enough time to stop?

Does it swerve into the path of oncoming traffic, potentially threatening the lives of its own passengers and the lives of others?

Would it make a different decision if it was an animal rather than a human that ran out in front? Who will be responsible for programming such decisions into the car? And what if you don’t agree with the default settings – should you have the right to override them?

Who is liable?

While driverless cars, with all the latest technology, should help reduce accidents, some 90% of which are currently caused by driver error, they will not be flawless.

A few of the vehicles currently being tested in the US have already been involved in crashes, for example.

So if you have a crash in a fully autonomous car, who exactly is liable – driver or manufacturer? Or is it the maker of the specific piece of equipment that failed, or the software that sits behind it?

If drivers are replaced entirely by passengers who have no way of overriding or controlling the systems in the vehicle, it’s possible manufacturers could become liable in the case of accidents.

Many pundits say it’s simply too early to provide definitive answers, although some accept there will be a need for data recorders – like the black boxes found on aircraft – to be built into the cars.

This in turn raises privacy concerns and question marks over who owns the data and who has the right to access it.

The technology isn’t good enough yet

Many semi-autonomous technologies are already available in today’s cars, from emergency braking to cruise control, self parking to lane keeping.

However, current generation sensors on vehicles have a range of about 200-300m but struggle with distances greater than this.

As a result, sensors may not yet have sufficient range to react fast enough at high speed when something happens ahead – although work is going on to develop sensors that can see up to 400m.

Lasers and cameras are also less effective in rainy, foggy or snowy conditions, which potentially makes them unreliable in much of the northern hemisphere.

Google, which is leading the way in research into this area in the US, has admitted that its prototype driverless car struggles to spot potholes or has yet to be tested in snow.

Who sets the industry standards?

Driverless cars may need to communicate directly with each other using systems similar to aircraft transponders – transmitting location, speed and direction to other vehicles.

But will the industry ever be able to agree a technological standard for this vehicle-to-vehicle communication?

Standards and data will have to be shared across the industry for them work, which implies open-source software in cars, say experts. But it is through this very software that OEMs demonstrate their knowhow and set them apart from their competitors.

Collaboration at this level in a highly competitive market will be difficult to say the least, say many industry commentators.

Security risks

Increased connectivity at the level we are already seeing in current cars presents security issues.

Researchers recently demonstrated how they could take control of a Jeep Cherokee by hacking into its internet-connected entertainment and navigation system via a mobile phone network.

This prompted the manufacturer to announce a voluntary recall of 1.4 million cars so that software could be enhanced with extra levels of security.

Other experts believe hackers could also seize control of a vehicle’s brakes or steering via digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio signals, further raising the security issue.

Who wants them?

Rightly or wrongly, many of us love the thrill of speed and the sense of freedom cars give us. But in a fully autonomous driverless world, the driver becomes passive and disengaged; the car is reduced to a mere tool for mobility.

Driver surveys already suggest we are ambivalent about this latest technology.

While driverless cars could offer valuable mobility to the elderly and people with varying degrees of disability, most experts believe such vehicles will be restricted to urban settings on prescribed routes only, rather than out on the open road.