Research recently conducted for The Times has presented a fairly negative snapshot of the public's perception of autonomous vehicle technology. In it, almost two thirds of motorists said they would not buy a driverless car, suggesting that people don't trust driverless technology... yet.
Clearly, those involved in the burgeoning industry face an enormous challenge in reassuring those unnerved by the idea of not being in control. Failure to do so will see driverless vehicles join the scrap heap of failed transport modernisation projects.
Safety is naturally top of the list when it comes to the prospect of driverless vehicles.
The technology will need to reduce the occurrence of collisions, which remains a considerable global problem that is unlikely to diminish given our increasingly busy roads. Whilst design details vary across manufacturers, it appears that this will be done using a combination of sensors, lasers, cameras and internal software capable of navigating and dictating the vehicle's behaviour. Researchers argue that the vehicle will be able to process an enormous amount of data, creating a precise map of its surroundings, allowing it to maintain safe distances and respond to obstacles almost instantly. The technology could allow communication of safety information between vehicles such as warnings of sudden braking or hazardous road conditions ahead.
Another potential barrier will be the industry's ability to maintain security against malicious cyber attacks. The concern is that hackers could hijack and assume control of a vehicle remotely or even interfere with its sensors, making objects suddenly invisible. Accordingly, the industry will need to be able to defend and adapt to such threats in the same way as other industries have done.
What is yet to be determined is the impact upon the existing legal process when someone is injured by a driverless vehicle.
Currently, the legal basis for demonstrating liability in road traffic accidents tends to be in what is known as 'negligence'. For example, where a driver fails to exercise appropriate care, they can be held liable in negligence for a claimant's injuries and for financial losses arising as a result. The legal position following the introduction of driverless vehicles, whereby someone sustains injuries in a road traffic accident in the absence of negligence on the part of a vehicle owner/driver, is less clear. In these circumstances, it may be considered unjust to apportion blame to a vehicle owner where it can be shown that the vehicle itself is to blame.
Within the legal and motor insurance industry, there does appear to be some consensus that legislative changes will be needed to ensure that claimants do not face an unduly complex procedure to recover damages following road traffic accidents. In its response to the Government's consultation on autonomous vehicle technologies, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) argues that motor insurers should not be allowed to deflect claims onto manufacturers of driverless vehicles under product liability laws. Arguments over who and what caused a collision would inevitably result in delaying compensation to victims.
As well as proving fault, one of the first steps claimant solicitors will take is to investigate the defendant driver's insurance position. Vehicle owners in the UK are required to hold at least a third party insurance policy against which an injured claimant can secure damages. Prior to the introduction of driverless cars, it will be essential that existing compulsory motor insurance requirements are extended to encompass the manufacturer's product liability.
Driverless cars will not mean the end to road traffic accidents and expectations in this regard must be managed.
Public concern over the technology must be viewed in the context of our existing reality when it comes to death and injury on our roads. Government statistics show that there were 1,792 road traffic related deaths recorded in Great Britain in 2016 (the highest since 2011), 24,101 reported as seriously injured and over 180,000 causalities. The vast majority would have been avoidable, caused by human error including lapses of concentration, excessive speed and/or drink and drugs. In contrast, computers don't tire on long journeys and won't lose concentration while reading a text. By removing human error from the roads, it may act to reduce the frequency and severity of road traffic accidents.
Beyond proving the technology is sound, it's also about the perception of safety. Regardless of the science, unless parents are willing to allow their children to travel in driverless cars, the market for the technology doesn't exist. The law has an important role to play in this regard; ensuring the public stay protected when accidents inevitably occur.
If driverless technology can prove itself in time as being a far safer, cleaner option while answering many of the legitimate concerns outside of this piece, I say let's hear it out.
Joshua Hughes, associate and Head of Complex Injury at Bolt Burdon Kemp