A steer into the future

The driverless cars from Total Recall and Knight Rider once seemed a far-fetched concept, but that future is already becoming a reality. Take a trip to the Greenwich Peninsula and you might ride the (admittedly less glamorous) Meridian Shuttle. Trials have also been approved for Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry. The UK Government has pledged £100m in funding through Innovate UK, and producers, insurers and local councils are already involved in trial projects.

Audi’s A8 with piloted parking launches in 2017/2018, where the driver exits the vehicle, presses a button on their smartphone, and the car drives to a nearby parking bay. By 2020 BMW, Nissan and Volvo intend to sell driverless cars. Nearly 230,000 driverless cars are expected to be sold globally in 2025, rising to 11.8 million in 2035, according to global analytics company IHS. The science-fiction is becoming fact.

Why driverless cars?

The Department for Transport’s (DfT) February 2015 report focused on four key benefits:

  • Improving safety – it notes that “human error is a factor in over 90% of collisions”. The intention is to eliminate those accidents. PwC reports that there are 1.3 million motor fatalities per year globally, and 40 million injuries. Anders Eugensson of Volvo states that “By 2020 no-one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo”.
  • Reducing emissions and easing congestion – vehicle to vehicle technology (V2V), which involves vehicles communicating with each other, and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I), could allow cars to drive more efficiently by knowing how fast other cars are driving and where they intend to go, and find less congested routes.
  • Increased access to vehicles – YouTube has a video clip of Steve Mahan, who is 95% blind, using a Google driverless car in 2012 to go to a drive-through restaurant, a dry-cleaner, and home again, without incident (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdgQpa1pUUE).
  • More free time – the DfT estimates that the average driver spends 235 hours driving per year. Driverless cars could free the driver up to ‘read a book, surf the web, watch a film’.

Will driverless cars be safe?

The notion of drivers reading books instead of watching the road might feel contrary to the goal of improving safety. Arguably it is a terrifying concept. However, most car manufacturers and bodies such as the Association of British Insurers envisage a gradual process of five stages, as follows:

0 = no automation

1 = function-specific automation

2= combined function automation

3 = limited self-driving automation

4 = full self-driving automation

Arguably, the most complex stages will be 2 and 3, as they involve a hybrid of driver control and autonomy. Determining liability for accidents, as between driver and vehicle producer, will prove interesting.

In July 2015 the DfT released a code of practice for testing driverless vehicles. It states that manufacturers must ensure that driverless technologies “undergo thorough testing and development…in test laboratories or on dedicated test tracks [and] controlled ‘real world’ testing” before being brought to market. Data captured from near-miss or collision incidents during trials will be invaluable to the process of tweaking physical designs and software behaviour algorithms.

Safety will be dependent on a vehicle having accurate data, including road layouts. The Consumer Rights Act 2015, in force from 1 October 2015, implies into contracts for digital content the requirement that such content be of ‘satisfactory quality’, with a relevant factor being ‘safety’. This may prove to be an important cause of action in future motor accidents.

A potential battleground in product liability will relate to instructions and warnings, which can be considered when assessing whether a product is ‘defective’ under the Consumer Protection Act 1987. How easy will it be to convey to a driver the capabilities and, crucially, limitations of driverless technology? Take as an example Volvo’s new anti-collision system. The driver believed it would detect pedestrians and automatically brake. Unfortunately, he had not paid for the optional ‘pedestrian detection’ function. This YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8nnhUCtcO8) captures the (hopefully not too serious) consequence of this misunderstanding of the limitations.

In the next blog post we will be discussing the duty of care of the operator of driverless cars


Written by David Kidman, partner

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