Coming to a road near you? The hurdles facing driverless cars

James Foxall
Written by: James Foxall
Posted on: 13 October 2015

When it comes to personal transport, there are few bigger buzzes than the development of the self-driving car. Technology giant Google claimed in August 2015 that its autonomous vehicles are averaging 10,000 miles a week on US public roads, as the company races to beat established car makers to a market that will be worth a small fortune in a matter of years.

Closer to home, major car makers are frenziedly testing their self-driving vehicles on closed proving grounds. And the UK government has said it wants Britain to become a leader in driverless technology.

Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that driverless cars for all are just round the corner. But the hurdles facing their developers are massive. Here are six reasons why driverless cars are facing an uphill struggle rather than a free-flowing road.

Getting the technology to work is the easy bit…

Today’s high-end cars feature all the necessary technology: cruise control that automatically slows down and speeds up a car with the flow of the traffic; autonomous braking that stops the car without any intervention from the driver; and lane keeping technology that guides a car between lane markers. The real challenge lies elsewhere.

Lane departure warning technology

Lane departure warning technology

Who pays if there’s a crash?

Currently all drivers must have motor insurance and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) claims 90 per cent of motor accidents are the result of human error. But Scott Pendry from the ABI revealed: “As the control input transfers from human to computer, it is possible that liability will follow. There is therefore the potential for the vehicle manufacturer to become liable for an accident, as opposed to the driver, if the driver is unable to override the system.”

Imagine a car maker has a bug in its self-driving software. A series of potentially massive claims against it could bankrupt the company, something car makers will be very wary of. So at the moment, insurance is a serious hurdle for the industry to clear.

When will self-driving cars be affordable?

The self-driving technology available at the moment is only offered on high-end cars. Andrew Miller, chief technical officer at Thatcham Research, explained: “It’ll be five to 10 years before we have highly autonomous vehicles driving themselves on motorways. These will be more expensive executive cars and it’ll take another 10 to 15 years for that technology to filter down to volume-selling cars. Then there’s another 10 years for all the non-driverless cars on the road to be replaced.”

That’s at least 30 years before they’re in the mainstream – assuming everything goes smoothly.

“There will be a period where logical, accident-free self-driving cars will be sharing the roads with those driven by accident-prone humans”

What about mixing technologies?

So, the switch to self-driving cars won’t happen overnight. As a result there will have to be a period where entirely logical, accident-free self-driving cars will be sharing the roads with all manner of older cars that are driven by accident-prone humans. Imagine the narrow city street where a wave and a flash of the lights currently suffices to indicate who goes first. How is that going to work if one car is self-driven, the other piloted by a human?

What are the dangers of cars being hacked?

In the summer of 2015, two US security experts working with Wired, a technology magazine, managed to take control of a Jeep Cherokee from a laptop computer 10 miles away. They then crashed the car for the purposes of the story. In 2014, a report by the FBI that was published by the Guardian claimed self-driving cars were an ‘active threat for a country’ and could be used by terrorists as a ‘lethal weapon’.

How much control will we have?

Will we all have self-driving cars? Or will those who like driving be able to take control of their car when they turn off the motorway and get to that winding road they love? At the moment, all that is yet to be decided.

“In the worst case the driver might have had too much to drink or become too ill to take control while the car has been doing the driving,” Andrew Miller from Thatcham Research said. “We need fool-proof systems.” And fool-proof systems take a long time to develop and prove.

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