#Driverlesscars: King of the road or driving disaster?

As the first road trial of driverless cars kick off in the UK, Rich Martin – Digital Strategy Director at MEC UK, considers what this could mean for the future of driving of the UK.

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The good people of Bristol, Coventry, Greenwich and Milton Keynes may get used to seeing the odd looking “pods” initially crawling and later tearing around their streets. Of course, they’ll also have drivers to start with, just in case.

The government see this as an opportunity for the UK to be a world leader in this sort of tech; a mere four years after testing started in the US.  Regardless of the issues of UK PLC, here are some thoughts on the potential impact of this development.

Will it catch on?

For private drivers, perhaps.  Many people like to drive and for one top level exec I spoke to last week, it is anathema “Driving is the only downtime I have left, why would I want to be emailing and so on then?”  For others though it would be a boon; slightly lower down the pay scale, a friend who runs a market stall 2 hours away from her home can’t think of anything better “I’d be able to sleep on the way and on the way home so I wouldn’t be tired at the end of a working day”.  The likelihood is that popularity will depend where most people sit on this spectrum.

In the field of professional driving though, things are quite different.  It’s very hard to see why the bell won’t eventually toll for lorry drivers, for example.  Any self-respecting logistics manager in charge of a large supply chain like, say, petrol distribution will be keeping a close eye on the costs of automated trucks: With drivers only allowed to work 90 hours a fortnight and for several nights sleeping in their vehicles, how can they compete with a machine that can drive 336 hours (less maintenance) of that time?  In the light of the recent tragedies in Glasgow and Bath, there may also be popular support for automation, or at least override facilities in the event of a driver losing control of a large vehicle.

What happens in an accident?

Assuming some use of automated vehicles over the next few years, there is a lot to clear up in terms of practicalities, insurance and ethics.  All of these will presumably be part of the trials we see this year

Firstly, driverless software will be programmed to avoid collisions above all. But, assuming a good level of sophistication they will have a hierarchy of things to avoid.  Should the priority be the safety of the car’s own passengers (i.e. should it avoid hitting the articulated lorry at the cost of hitting a Ford Focus)?  That seems pretty rough on the innocent driver of the Ford. Perhaps it should avoid cars or motorbikes that are less safe than others (i.e. hit the Volvo instead of the vintage MG)?  But that seems to disadvantage the person who had chosen to invest in their safety.  And what is the priority regarding pedestrians or cyclists?

Whichever way the ethical fundamentals end up stacked, there are also big implications for the insurance industry.  In the case of any of these putative incidents, who is at fault?  Do the manufacturers now bare the cost?  Or is it the coder who programmed the car?  All of this remains to be ironed out, but should inform a fascinating debate

Will they be safer?

Theoretically yes.  According to RoSPA, human error remains the most common cause of road accidents.  Use of phones, lack of care and attention, speeding and sadly still, drunk driving all contribute and by taking these factors out of car travel we can hope for fewer road deaths.  With the UK presently ranked 11th in the world at 3.5 deaths per 100,000 people according to the WHO, things look good, but that still added up to 2,175 fatalities in 2012. Any improvement in these statistics should be welcomed, all the more so in places like India where you are five and a half times more likely to die in a car than in the UK.

Of course, the proof will be in the pudding, which will happen only when testing is taken out of the present controlled environments.

Let us know what you think the future of driving is by tweeting us @MECUK