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Is the UK ready for Self-Driving Cars?

King Charles III’s recent address to the UK included several significant announcements, including new legislation governing the deployment of driverless vehicles to the country. Mark Trimbee – motoring enthusiast and CEO of private number plate provider Regtransfers – explores the implications of growing interest in autonomous cars, expressing his concern that we, as a nation, should approach this emerging technology with caution.

The future of self-driving vehicles presents both outstanding opportunities and complex challenges; While the recent legislation mentioned in the King’s Speech marks a significant step towards our country realising the potential of autonomous cars, it also highlights critical issues within the security and safety of these vehicles. In both aspects, driverless cars may have some way to go before they can genuinely be considered a viable replacement on our roads.

A Revolution On Offer

The core development in autonomous vehicles lies in the Automated Vehicles Bill, a legislative measure aimed at unlocking a “transport revolution” through safe deployment of self-driving vehicles. Through this bill the King hopes the UK will see global leadership in the autonomous vehicle sector. Hailed as one of the world’s “most comprehensive legal frameworks” for self-driving vehicles, it places safety at its core, and carries far-reaching implications not only for the automotive industry, but the broader economy as well.

Growth and Prosperity

The government’s vision is clear: 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.

Safety First

The argument “for” self-driven cars is strong; On paper, they have the potential to enhance transport safety, convenience, and accessibility, ultimately improving the lives of millions of UK residents.

In 2022, an estimated 1,695 fatalities and 136,022 casualties resulted from road traffic accidents, with a reported 88% being as a result of human error. Automated vehicles, it is said, may allow the country to reduce costs, injuries, and fatalities. Beyond this, people across the country will be able to take daily commutes to school or work more efficiently and safely – making them a triviality and increasing the population’s productivity in other areas.

These are clear, advantageous qualities for autonomous vehicles, and given the benefits, one could argue that we should make every effort to progress with mass production and deployment. However, before doing so, there are several current challenges faced by the technology that must be addressed before mass rollout becomes feasible.

Challenges and Concerns

Currently, it feels as though we have only dipped our toes into the uncharted waters presented by self-driving cars. Still, a number of key concerns have already been raised, warranting caution and careful consideration before fully embracing this technology.

Security

Smart products, applications, and wearable tech already pose security challenges to the general public, and fully automated vehicles bring a new dimension of risk. A car operated entirely by computer systems could become vulnerable to hacking, with potentially severe consequences. The severity of this threat escalates if a large number of autonomous cars share the same network, increasing the potential damage caused by malicious activities.

Cost

In the UK, the cost of an automated car currently sits at an initial cost of around £50,000 – a sum out of financial reach for many individuals. However, as this is new technology, it’s expected that it will become more affordable for the average car owner as time goes on. Of all the concerns, this, while being the largest roadblock for the majority of the public, is one we will simply need to wait out.

The Moral Dilemma

One of the significant issues faced by autonomous cars revolves around everyday road traffic situations where there is no clear “black and white” or binary solution guaranteeing complete 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 the vehicles use to navigate these choices? In such instances, the manufacturers responsible for the intelligence behind self-driving cars and the logic used may find themselves in an ethical minefield, facing accusations of “playing God.”

Potential Machine Errors

As with any machine, there is always room for error. The stakes are high where AVs are concerned, putting passengers and pedestrians at potentially grave 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. On paper, we’ve discussed that AVs present the opportunity for safer roads. In practice, this may not be the case.

Recent Concerns

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

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

Parliamentary Support

The King’s announcement received a warm reception from MPs on the Transport Committee. This parliamentary body had previously called for new legislation to address safety concerns, as articulated in their September report on the future of self-driving vehicles. It seems, at least for the time being, that their calls may have been answered.

The Journey Ahead

As the UK charts its course towards 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.

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