Autonomous Cars: So Close Yet So Far

The 1865 Locomotive Acts obliged cars to drive at a maximum speed of 6 km per hour and be preceded by a man on foot blowing a horn. The law changed slowly as the public view evolved. Today, the rise of autonomous vehicles calls for further changes in transport and other industries. It is clear that the development and adoption of self-driving cars will require a legal framework and the involvement of governments, but also some time before the public adapts.

Mixed Feelings

A recent study shows what road users actually think of implementing autonomous cars in Europe. As of today, 80% of the population would not want to be a passenger in a fully self-driving vehicle, and half of the population would be scared to be pedestrians if such cars were on the roads. All this regardless of the fact that – when compared to human drivers – self-driving cars would not drink, use their smartphones, and would always respect the speed limit.  

Governments are likely to choose to restrict autonomous cars to (or out of) designated areas until the public deems it safe. Urban planning decisions will have to be made in that respect, for example to reserve lanes or limit their speed.

State Intervention

Whenever simpler solutions are chosen (such as a front light that the computer will use when a vehicle detects pedestrians at a crossing), a good cooperation between the regulatory bodies and the manufacturers will be necessary. This might be more successful in countries where state intervention is the norm. 

As most military uses are not subject to the same regulations as civilian society, the military might make good use of autonomous vehicles and help the technology reach maturity, until the general public is ready to fully accept self-driving cars on the road. Using military funds for a long term civilian purpose sounds like a clever idea too.

The Question of Responsibility

The question of legal responsibility in case of human casualty (and in particular fatality) is the most common one. This may imply that autonomous cars could only be a taxi service for many years until deemed completely safe.

Oddly enough the general public seems to be very concerned by the moral or ethical choices to be made to choose the outcome of an accident. Nonetheless, most humans have only a split second to react in case of a collision (and basically do not think about it as much as they wished).

Today, everything relies on the possibility to grant or remove a driving license from a human driver, but ultimately insurance companies pay off damages. For the insurance sector this could be a massive new business opportunity, not very different in fact from the existing civil liability contracts.

Privacy Laws and Democracy

Recent changes in privacy laws also mean that if your personal data as a passenger is collected, it should not allow the state to know where you have been. Paradoxically, self-driving cars could become yet another form of monitoring and control by the government.

The role that our governments need to fill is clear: to set the right pace, not too fast, not too slow. The economic consequences of promoting or not promoting research, development and adoption of self-driving cars will reflect the attitudes of governments. Soon, we will see if the countries that started early will become the leaders of tomorrow.

Author: Giles Kirkland