The King’s Speech brought several significant announcements by the monarch; among them, the introduction of new legislation governing the deployment of autonomous vehicles in the UK. In response, Mark Trimbee, driving enthusiast and CEO of private number plate provider Regtransfers, delves into the implications of this increased interest in driverless cars, and his concerns that the UK – and the rest of the world – need to approach this new technology with a degree of caution.
The journey ahead for self-driving vehicles holds both promise and challenges. While the King’s recent discussion of comprehensive legislation signifies a significant stride towards realising the potential of self-driving cars, it also spotlights the paramount issue of the security and safety of such technologies. In both areas, driverless cars may have some way to go before they are truly able to be considered a viable replacement for the current model of human-operated transport.
A Transport Revolution Set in Motion
Beginning with the facts, the core of this development in driverless vehicles lies in the Automated Vehicles Bill, a legislative measure poised to unlock a “transport revolution” by enabling the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles.
This bill aims to solidify the UK’s position as a global leader in the high-tech, high-growth autonomous vehicle sector. By providing one of the world’s “most comprehensive legal frameworks” for self-driving vehicles, it places safety at its core. This legislative initiative carries far-reaching implications, not only for the automotive industry but also for the broader economy.
Economic Growth and Job Creation
The Government’s vision is clear: the bill is expected to unlock the growth potential of the autonomous vehicle sector in the UK. In doing so, it could create a market valued at up to £42 billion and generate 38,000 skilled jobs by 2035. This bold step aims to propel the UK into a leading position within this rapidly evolving industry.
The central premise behind the automated vehicles bill is safety. It argues that self-driving vehicles have the potential to enhance transport safety, convenience, and accessibility, ultimately improving the lives of millions.
In 2022, there were an estimated 1,695 fatalities and 136,022 casualties of all severities as a result of road traffic accidents. With a reported 88% of accidents currently involving human error, the general consensus is that the introduction of automated vehicles has the potential to significantly reduce costs, injuries, and fatalities. Further, autonomous vehicles have the potential to empower people across the country, making daily commutes to school or work more efficient and safe, thereby boosting overall productivity.
Overall, these are clear, winning qualities for driverless vehicles. In light of the benefits afforded by this technology, one could say that we should make every effort to surge forward with mass production and deployment. But before doing so, there are a number of current challenges faced by the technology, which must be overcome before mass rollout is viable.
Challenges and Concerns
At present, it feels as though we have only touched the surface of the uncharted waters presented by self-driven cars. Even so, a number of key concerns have already been raised which warrant caution and careful consideration before leaping into the deep end of the technology
In an age where smart products, applications, and wearable tech are already posing security challenges, the advent of fully automated vehicles introduces new dimensions of risk. A car operating entirely on computer systems could become vulnerable to hacking, with potentially severe consequences. The severity of this threat escalates if a large number of automated cars share the same network, amplifying the scope for malicious activities.
While the potential benefits of self-driving cars are substantial, the initial costs are steep. A car capable of self-drive mode in the UK currently comes with a price tag upwards of £50,000. This places such vehicles far beyond the financial reach of many individuals. However, this challenge is not insurmountable, as technological development tends to drive down costs over time, eventually making self-driving cars more affordable for the average car owner.
The Moral Dilemma
One of the significant ethical quandaries posed by automated cars revolves around everyday road traffic situations where there is no clear “black and white” or binary solution that guarantees 100% safety. When faced with a choice between two options, both of which could lead to harm—either to pedestrians or passengers—who decides the logic governing these choices, and why? In such instances, the manufacturers responsible for the intelligence behind self-driving cars and the logic used may find themselves in an ethical minefield, with accusations of “playing God.”
Potential Machine Error
As with any machine, there is always room for error. In a world where a car is entirely automated, the stakes are high, putting passengers and pedestrians at risk in the event of a malfunction. This could manifest in systems erroneously activating or deactivating when they should not, leading to potential hazards such as fires from the car’s batteries or breakdowns resulting in a loss of control that leads to accidents.
Beyond the challenges inherent in self-driving technology, recent developments in the industry have raised alarm bells. Just last year, around 400 self-driven car systems were reported involved in road accidents.
Recent news from the US highlights further difficulties faced by autonomous vehicles, including those operated by General Motors’ Cruise division. Concerns include the technology’s vulnerability to hacking, struggles in recognizing hazards like large holes in the road, and difficulties in identifying children in certain scenarios, posing risks of accidents. Each of these has led to a recall of all 950 vehicles to perform software updates.
While AV companies assert the safety of their systems, incidents such as this raise important questions about the readiness of this technology.
The announcement of the automated vehicles bill received a warm reception from MPs on the Transport Committee. This parliamentary body had previously called for new legislation to address safety concerns, as articulated in their September report on the future of self-driving vehicles. It seems, at least for the time being, that their calls may have been answered in the form of this new bill.
The Journey Ahead
As the UK charts its course toward the future of autonomous vehicles, the industry, regulators, and the public must unite to confront a range of current challenges. From security and data privacy to the ethical dilemmas posed by self-driving technology, this is a journey marked by opportunities and responsibilities, where innovation walks hand in hand with safety.
The road ahead promises a transformative future—one where technology and safety harmoniously coexist, shaping a new era of transportation. However, in this writer’s opinion, it is a road that must be carefully travelled.