Can we trust our cars to drive us?

24th April 2017

Russell Haworth

Russell Haworth

In the excitement of approaching the era of autonomous cars, we shouldn’t overlook the challenges that our human instinct will face as we accept and (hopefully) embrace one of the most transformative technological developments of our time. A car that drives itself sounds exciting and liberating, and yet are we really ready to place our trust in a machine, especially when it comes to our own and other’s safety?

Not only will we have to believe that an autonomous car can navigate the roads safely, we will also have to accept the moral decisions of software. The notion makes people uncomfortable;  research shows that people would choose not to ride in cars that are programmed to sacrifice their passenger to save a pedestrian, although they approve of the principle. As fully autonomous cars become a reality, learning to place our trust in a machine – and all the associated complications – could be the hardest hurdle to overcome.

Yet assisted driving is no new phenomenon. Whether it be a vehicle equipped with a satnav, self-park functionality or the block on the car starting until seatbelts are fastened, we have been gradually increasing vehicles autonomy for many years, fuelled by progressing technology and enthusiasm of customers. Considering the current status quo, the self-driving car is really just one more step down a path we have been journeying for many years.

We must also focus on the potential benefits of fully-autonomous cars when grappling with reservations. These self-drive vehicles should make our roads safer, as over 90% of vehicle accidents and fatalities worldwide are caused by human error. In more concrete terms, a KPMG report estimates that, by 2030, 2,500 lives will be saved and 25,000 serious accidents prevented in the UK courtesy of autonomous vehicles.

Our roads will also likely be less congested, as it is expected that not everyone will own an autonomous car but rather use them like taxis, easing city infrastructure issues such as traffic jams and parking. The cars could also be programmed to collect data on environmental conditions that would be invaluable to town planners and city councils.

Potential social and community benefits shouldn’t be understated either. Older people and the disabled may welcome enhanced mobility, while youngsters could get around without asking their parents for lifts. Those travelling alone at night, especially women, may feel less vulnerable in a self-drive taxi, while police time and money could be saved if forces no longer have to monitor traffic or pull over speeding drivers (assuming these vehicles have built-in speedometers).

There have been many concerns that the rise of AI will strip humans of jobs, yet the KPMG report indicates that the rise of connected and autonomous vehicles could create an additional 320,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, translating into social and economic benefits to the tune of £51 billion per year by 2030.

With all this in mind, can we really let our apprehensions stand in the way of self-drive cars? I recognise that it is a leap of faith for society – this is unchartered territory for the many who have hitherto limited their involvement with technology to a smartphone and a computer. Concerning news stories don’t help mitigate nerves, and researchers have made vocal warnings about risks – such as the long transition times (it takes a human almost half a minute to take manual control) and threats posed by hackers.

However, we need to place faith in systems and process, and recognise that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Regulations and legislation will be created to support the use of autonomous cars, with real-time insurance and considerations for security and privacy built in before these fully autonomous vehicles can come to market. Governments are starting to mobilise, paving the way for safe and effective use of self-drive cars, and companies like us are bringing our expertise to exploratory projects that will hopefully create real-time analytical frameworks to help accelerate market implementation. We are excited to be part of the process and confident that autonomous cars are going to be worth the leap of faith that society will have to make.

Don’t forget that similar reservations were voiced when cars were first introduced. The ‘Red Flag Act’ of 1865 set speed limits at 2mph in the city (4mph in the country) and demanded a chap with a red flag walk ahead of each car, so strong were the concerns over safety. Look how far we’ve come since then. Self-drive cars are the next chapter and, once we overcome our very human, instinctive reservations, the rewards should be vast.

For more details on Nominet’s involvement in autonomous vehicles R&D, read the story on Driven.