Driverless Cars: The Future or a Fad?

 

The idea of autonomous vehicles has been around for decades but it is only in recent years that this prospect has become a reality. Many car manufacturers hope to have autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020 and Business Insider claims that 10 million self-driving cars could be on our roads by this time. Companies such as Google, Telsa and Mercedes have all tested their own autonomous cars and development continues every day. Despite this however, no matter how revolutionary new technology may be however, consumer markets have to be ready for these technologies for their use to permeate wider society. A prime example of this has been the rise and fall of the 3D television. Only 4 years ago it was tipped to be the next big thing in home entertainment, now, in 2017 no major high street retailer stocks 3D TV’s. Self-driving cars clearly differ substantially from televisions but the premise remains consistent. There are a number of key factors that could inhibit the widespread adoption of self-driving cars but there are a lot of benefits and excitement about this technology and this anticipation may successfully carry through to general consumer markets.  This article will explore the key opportunities and obstacles for driverless vehicle technology and question whether driverless cars can truly become the main form of personal transport in future or just fade away.

 

A key benefit of self-driving cars which advocates will use to promote its adoption is the high level of safety of the vehicles. RAC statistics show that in the UK alone there were over 140,000 personal injury traffic incidents in 2015. It is estimated that up to 90% of these road traffic could be eliminated by driverless cars. The cars remove the possibility of human error and recklessness. This would make our roads safer for both pedestrians and drivers.

It is likely that autonomous vehicles will become ubiquitous even sooner than previously anticipated because legislators have started making provisions to accommodate this technology.  Legislation can disrupt or even complete stifle the progress of new technology but in the UK, Parliament released the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill in February 2017 which covers key legal issues. The most pertinent point stipulates that responsibility for accidents caused by the technology would lie with insurers except in 2 circumstances. Insurers would however be able to attempt to recover these costs from the vehicle manufacturers themselves .Drivers would only be liable for an accident if they made unauthorised alterations to the vehicle or failed to update the software. With the regulatory framework in place, a huge barrier to progress is removed and this significantly increases the likelihood that self-driving cars can be on our roads in the near future.

 

Critics argue that self-driving cars may not actually become as prevalent as some anticipate. There are significant legal issues with self-driving cars, namely the allocation of liability in traffic incidents. There does however, appear to be significant progress in resolving this issue as shown by the UK Parliament Bill mentioned above. It appears as if legislators are keen to deal with legal issues in a timely manner in preparation of  their arrival, which is encouraging for advocates.

Ironically, one of the key benefits of the self-driving car could in turn become one of its most significant obstacles. The autonomy of the vehicles removes risk of human error or recklessness in driving but the car insurance premiums are based largely on this risk. This potentially poses a threat to the industry and the worst case scenario is that insurance companies simply do not insure fully autonomous vehicles, thereby killing the progress. Fortunately, there have been steps to mitigate these issues. Most self driving cars coming into the market will have a manual override setting, so humans will have the option to manually drive therefore, not entirely removing all risk. In addition, insurance bosses both in the UK and the US have been largely positive about driverless cars which indicates that companies do have plans to adequately accommodate them without taking hits to their profits.

While national governments seem enthusiastic about driverless technology, particularly in the UK driverless cars could cause a huge black hole in local councils’ budgets. Councils rely heavily on these speeding and parking fines . London councils alone make £127 million a year in minor traffic offence fines (1) . Across the UK local councils are already under enormous financial strain and it is difficult to see where they will make up this lost revenue. While this is unlikely to inhibit the adoption of self-driving cars, it is an unintended consequence that needs to be considered.

Another issue is that many people simply do not like the concept of self-driving technology on the roads. Many people still do enjoy driving and others are highly sceptical of the safety credentials of this technology. A recent US study found that 48% of people do not believe that autonomous vehicles will not improve the driving experience. New technology takes time to be adopted into the mainstream and self-driving cars will certainly be no different. These approval statistics are likely to be a lot different in another 10 years.

 

Self-driving cars are the future but it may take some time. Insurance companies will fight ardently to protect their revenue from faultless driverless vehicles but legislators seem enthusiastic.  We are in the advent of driverless technology and the future is very promising but as mentioned above, the reality is that all groundbreaking technology in consumer markets takes time to become widespread. When automobiles became commercially available in the early 20th Century, many people disliked the concept of travelling in these machines and it took half a generation for them to be ubiquitously adopted. This is likely to be the same with self-driving cars. Within the next 5 years we will see an increasing number of them on the road but it is unlikely that they will be common. So if you haven’t passed your driving test don’t give up your lessons just yet, driverless revolution is still a while away.

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