Bloomberg reports that this month “Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones” (see here). And AP reports that the world’s first self-driving taxis are picking up passengers in Singapore (see here).
Reports of fatalities apparently involving ‘driverless’ technologies have started to reach the news – for example, see here a recent article from Reuters.
So it was perhaps with some trepidation that I recently accepted a lift from a customer in his Tesla Model S, who then offered to demonstrate ‘autopilot’ on a 70 mph dual carriageway in Swindon.
News of the first reported driver fatality involving an automated vehicle (while in self-driving mode) has broken in the USA.
Whilst understandably this is causing wide concern, and much comment, it is too early to reach firm conclusions about causes and consequences and any suggestion that this is or could be a “watershed moment” for automated and autonomous vehicles will be premature.
It does however serve to remind us that the highly automated vehicles being developed today are not “driverless”; even if the technology involved is very sophisticated, it is still just a tool for us to use and it has limitations that we – as fallible humans – need to understand.
“My ministers will ensure the United Kingdom is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles.” You may well wonder how the Queen could keep a straight face announcing this part of the Government’s legislative programme on Wednesday morning, shortly after having arrived at Westminster in a horse-drawn coach built in 1851 by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Nevertheless, it is now clear that legislation to facilitate so-called driverless cars is to be brought forward in the current Parliamentary session.
Mankind can’t resist a challenge. As with the first landing on the Moon, it will be the same for driverless cars – we will get there eventually.
Where scientists, engineers and explorers conquer, however, big business and consumerism will follow and these days that also means internet reviews and YouTube videos. The court of public opinion and confidence has to be continuously satisfied – amply illustrated by one recent review of a driverless experience that said “…it seems that the future of driving is equal parts glee and terror”.
“We are liable for everything the car is doing in autonomous mode… If you are not ready to make such a statement, you shouldn’t try to develop an autonomous system.” So says Håkan Samuelsson, CEO and President of Volvo. A confident statement, also made in similar terms by Google and Mercedes-Benz recently.
The adoption of such a conciliatory attitude could lead to prompt resolution of liability disputes when motor accidents occur, and save insurers substantial sums in settling claims and effecting prompt recovery of losses. But the road to hell (or, in this context, court) is paved with good intentions.