Are Self-Driving Cars closer than we think?

9th June 2015

With Google recently announcing that its self-driving cars are headed for testing on public roads in California this summer and a driverless car review currently in place in the UK, it’s understandable why the subject on everybody’s lips in the motoring world at the moment is driverless vehicles.

Driverless technology has already been incorporated into a number of top-spec production cars and most commonly takes the form of autonomous emergency braking and self-parking features. However, The Telegraph reports that in as little as three years we could be seeing the first completely autonomous self-driving vehicles on Britain’s roads.

The development of driverless systems has undoubtedly bought with it a wide range of practical, and legal considerations, which has most recently included the likely effect on car insurance premiums and the potential dangers of hacking.

In this article we will touch upon some of the major talking points and explore what the future is likely to hold for the UK and the introduction of driverless vehicles on our roads. So sit back and take your hands off the steering wheel while we take you on a journey through driverless technology.

Why driverless?

Safer Roads

The main argument in favour of driverless technology is that it can reduce the number of accidents on our roads by removing the scope for human error and bad driving.

In theory, algorithmic (computerised) drivers perform less erratically than their human counterparts, so do not suffer lapses in concentration and react faster to potential hazards, allowing them to take appropriate measures to avoid them.

Cheap Insurance

Despite being met with initial scepticism, it now appears that driverless safety features are contributing to a reduction in road traffic accidents. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, director of safety research at Thatcham, Mathew Avery, highlighted that autonomous emergency braking reduce accidents by up to 25% and that the best systems are capable of a reduction of up to 45%.

Mr Avery also reported that 71% of all car insurance claims currently result from a vehicle reversing badly and that 23% arise from parking incidents. Both of which are expected to be eliminated with the introduction of driverless cars.

It is hoped that the adoption of completely autonomous vehicles could eventually phase out injury claims and car park disputes entirely, which currently cost UK insurers nearly £3 billion annually. This would have a huge impact on car insurance premiums, which would fall dramatically if the technology proves successful.

Mr Avery does however mention that “catastrophic crashes”, where a driverless car malfunctions, will account for most accidents in future. Needless to say that the thought of a “catastrophic crash” is an unnerving one for any road user and it is likely to take some convincing before we are persuaded to part with our steering wheels.

Better Fuel Economy

Perhaps a more unnerving concept however, is the thought of a “catastrophic crash” involving a malfunctioning HGV. Believe it or not though, the road haulage industry is also very keen to develop self-drive technology for integration within long distance goods vehicles, where fuel efficiency is a massive driver for change.

Be Wiser Business Insurance recently examined the emergence in driverless technology in HGV’s, after vehicle giant Daimler recently announced that its 18-wheeler Freightliner lorries had been given the go-ahead for testing on the highways of Nevada this summer, read the article here.

Where are we on the road to driverless cars?

Leading the way in producing the world’s first truly autonomous road vehicle is Google, whose self-driving cars will soon be leaving its test tracks and heading onto the public roads of Mountain View, California.

Google’s Chris Urmson recently reported in a blog that the company fleet of 20+ driverless cars have only been involved in 11 accidents in a total of 6 years and nearly 1 million miles of testing (and these have been contributed to the errors of other drivers, rather than the self-driving vehicles themselves).

He goes on to explain that the majority these incidents occurred on city streets and that the most common occurrence was being run into the back of at traffic lights.

“Lots of people aren’t paying attention to the road.”Urmson explains “In any given daylight moment in America, there are 660,000 people behind the wheel who are checking their devices instead of watching the road. Our safety drivers routinely see people weaving in and out of their lanes; we’ve spotted people reading books, and even one playing a trumpet. A self-driving car has people beat on this dimension of road safety. With 360 degree visibility and 100% attention out in all directions at all times; our newest sensors can keep track of other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians out to a distance of nearly two football fields.”

Nevertheless, the residents of Mountain View will be relieved to hear that the self-piloted vehicles will initially be capped at a neighbourhood-friendly top speed of 25mph and manned by a safety driver, who will be on hand take control of the vehicles should anything go wrong.

California is one of four US states that has adapted legislation to permit the testing of driverless vehicles, however a number of states including Texas, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin have rejected autonomous car laws, and many others are still yet to make a decision.

EU to make Car Insurance compulsory for Lawnmowers and Mobility Scooters

Following a recent EU decision, vehicles such as ride-on lawnmowers, mobility scooters and golf buggies could soon require motor insurance, even when they are used on private property.

The decision in question arose from a European Court of Justice case involving Slovenian farm worker, Damijan Vnuk, who was knocked from a ladder by a tractor on private land.


Call Wiser’s guide to Home Insurance for First Time Buyers

Owning your own home is one of the biggest milestones you will encounter in your lifetime, but before you furnish or redecorate your new property and get ready for the housewarming party, it’s important to make sure your investment is soundly protected.

It’s safe to say that buying insurance for your new place is perhaps not the most exciting part of the home buying journey, but it’s definitely a decision that can help you to sleep peacefully at night, provided of course that you chose the right policy!


UK to become a World Leader in driverless technology

The UK government wants Britain to become a world leader in driverless technology, recognising that the industry could grow to be worth a potential £900 billion in the future and according to a review by the Department for Transport; it is about to publish a code of practice to permit the testing of autonomous cars in the UK.

Recognising that legislative changes will be necessary to accommodate driverless cars on our roads the Department for Transport has also promised a full review of current legislation by the summer of 2017, which will require an update to the Highway Code, adjustments to MOT test guidelines and a review into liability for accidents involving self-piloted vehicles.

So far the UK government has invested £19m into driverless schemes, including an autonomous shuttle by the O2 Arena at North Greenwich Plaza; an off-road vehicle developed by BAE in Bristol; and a number of self-driving pods to be trialled on pavements and pedestrianised areas of Milton Keynes later this year.

Transport Minister Claire Perry said “Driverless vehicle technology has the potential to be a real game-change on the UK's roads, altering the face of motoring in the most fundamental of ways and delivering major benefits for road safety, social inclusion, emissions and congestion.”

Is it all good news?

Public confusion – Will we need to pay extra to avoid accidents?

The below video recently emerged and went viral, showing a Volvo XC60 ploughing into two journalists in the Dominican Republic, who believed the vehicle’s automatic braking feature would kick in to avoid collision.

Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured.

It was assumed initially that the technology had malfunctioned, however it later emerged that the driver misunderstood the technology that was fitted to the vehicle. While the new XC60s come fitted with an auto-braking feature as standard that is capable of detecting other vehicles, it is not able to detect pedestrians.

Johan Larson, a spokesperson from Volvo explained that an additional pedestrian detection feature is offered by Volvo as an optional extra and he believes that the vehicle in the video did not have this add-on installed. He goes on to mention that even if the vehicle had been fitted with the pedestrian detection technology, it is possible that it was not switched on and that the driver could have still overridden the safety feature by driving the vehicle in that way.

Driverless cars “Drive like your Grandma”

A resident of Mountain View, where the new “Google Bugs” are soon to be rolled out for testing, recently wrote about his experience so far with self-driving cars in Emerging Technologies Blog.

He explains that “Google cars drive like your grandma - they're never the first off the line at a stop light, they don't accelerate quickly, they don't speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.)

He suggests that the over-cautiousness of the vehicles is likely to annoy some drivers and believes that motorists will see self-drive cars as “easy targets” in traffic, as the vehicles he observed manoeuvred very slowly and offered “excessive gaps”, which other motorists could exploit.

However, he goes on to say that “I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers.” But he believes in order for self-driving cars to operate at their full potential, regular cars would eventually need to be banned from the roads.

Public attitudes

Perhaps the largest obstacle that driverless vehicle developers need to overcome is public opinion.

The Times reports that a survey undertaken by Virgin last year found that 43% of the British public wouldn’t feel comfortable in the presence of driverless cars and a quarter of all surveyed said that they would not get inside such a vehicle.

Driving is also a cherished activity by many people, so driverless developers will have a hard time convincing the sceptical public about the benefits of ceding control of their steering wheels.

Travel sickness

Autonomous vehicles are expected to free up drivers attention to read, browse the web, watch television or videos, play games, text and work. These are all activities that will increase the likelihood and severity of motion sickness.

Research performed by the University of Michigan reported that 6-12% of adults in the US are likely to experience moderate or severe motion sickness when travelling in fully autonomous self-driving vehicles. This is attributed to a greater conflict between vestibular (balance) and visual inputs, the inability to anticipate the direction of motion and the lack of control over the direction of motion in driverless vehicles.

Danger of hacking

One of the most recent issues to enter the driverless debate is the potential danger that driverless vehicles could be hacked and deliberately caused to collide, and as IOL reports; carmakers and insurers are starting to factor in this risk.

The guardian collates expert opinions on the matter in its article Can driverless cars be made safe from hackers?, where Hugh Boyes, cyber security lead at the Institution of Engineering and Technology points out the need to separate mobile broadband enabled entertainment consoles from the vehicle control systems such as the brakes and steering.

No ethical consciousness

Another interesting discussion point is the inability of algorithmic drivers to identify one potential hazard from the next from an ethical perspective. For example, if an autonomous car is faced with the dilemma of colliding with a choice of two vehicles, one containing a young family and another with a reckless driver, it would be unable to understand that avoiding a collision with the family is the most ethical decision.

So there we have it, the “crash-course” in driverless technology, we’ll be sure to keep you posted with any new and important developments, so make sure to like and follow us for updates.

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