Is the UK Prepared for Autonomous Vehicles?

The recent King’s Speech unveiled several significant announcements, including the introduction of new legislation governing the deployment of autonomous vehicles across the UK. In response to this, Mark Trimbee, a passionate driver and the CEO of private number plate provider Regtransfers, examines the implications of the growing interest in driverless cars. He also expresses his concerns that the UK, along with the rest of the world, needs to approach this emerging technology with a degree of caution.

The journey toward automated vehicles (AVs) presents equal measures of promise and challenge. While the legislation discussed by the King represents a significant step toward realizing the potential of self-driving cars, it also highlights the paramount issue of the security and safety of such technologies. In both areas, driverless cars may still have a long way to go before they can be considered a viable occupant of British roads.

A Transport Revolution

At the heart of this development in driverless vehicles lies 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 cement the UK’s position as a global leader in the high-tech, high-growth AV 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.

Prioritising Safety

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 due to 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. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles carry the means to empower people across the country, making daily commutes to school or work more efficient and safe, thereby boosting overall productivity.

These are clear and advantageous qualities for driverless vehicles. Given the benefits offered by this technology, one could argue that we should make every effort to advance with mass production and deployment. However, before doing so, there are a number of current challenges faced by the technology that must be overcome before mass rollout is viable.

Challenges and Concerns

At present, it feels as though we have only scratched the surface of the uncharted territory presented by self-driven cars. Nevertheless, several key concerns have already been raised, warranting caution and careful consideration before fully embracing this technology.

Security Issues

In an era where smart products, applications, and wearable tech already pose security challenges, the emergence 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, increasing the scope for malicious activities.

Initial Costs

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 of over £50,000. This places such vehicles far beyond the financial reach of many individuals. However, this challenge is not insurmountable, as technological advancements tend to drive down costs over time, eventually making self-driving cars more affordable for the average car owner.

The Ethical 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 Errors

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.

Recent Concerns

Beyond the challenges inherent in self-driving technology, recent developments in the industry have raised alarm bells. Just last year, approximately 400 self-driven car systems were reported to be 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, difficulties in recognizing hazards like large holes in the road, and struggles in identifying children in certain scenarios, posing risks of accidents. Each of these issues has led to a recall of all 950 vehicles to perform software updates.

While autonomous vehicle companies assert the safety of their systems, incidents like these raise important questions about the readiness of this technology.

Parliamentary Support

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 outlined in their September report on the future of self-driving vehicles. It appears that, at least for the time being, their calls may have been answered in the form of this new bill.

The Road Ahead

As the UK navigates 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 one that must be traveled carefully.