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The UK Becomes the Latest Country to Allow Driverless Cars on Public Roads

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Following in the tracks of Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and four US states (California, Florida, Nevada and Michigan), driverless cars can now be tested on public roads in the UK. The UK government has set aside £19 million for four pilot schemes to aid the development of the technology although, according to a BBC article on February 11, “a "test driver" must be responsible for any automated car until the technology matures.” For this testing phase at least then, critical questions such as who is to blame if a driverless car is involved in an accident or commits a traffic violation - exceeding the speed limit or going through a red light for example – are answered. The upshot is that the UK government estimates that driverless car technology will be an industry worth £900 billion by 2025 and is therefore seeking to be a key player, attracting investment in the country and its automotive industry in the process. Additionally, governments have vested interests in supporting the development of automated car technology as it promises to deliver some game-changing non-monetary benefits for broader society.

Traffic accidents and violations

As mentioned above, the question as to who is liable if a driverless car is involved in an accident or commits a traffic violation is a difficult one as aside from the driver, the system supplier or even car manufacturer could ultimately be held accountable. However, this is arguably a short-term problem as in the long term, driverless car technology actually promises to eliminate (or at least drastically reduce) the number of accidents and driving offenses, the vast majority of which are due to driver error. In turn, this will reduce the burden on hospitals, especially accident and emergency departments which are widely reported as being overstretched in the UK.

Driving under the influence

In a fully automated driving mode, surely being behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol or drugs cannot be deemed to be an offense. Moreover, if cars drive their owner home rather than vice versa, impaired drivers become a thing of the past which further reduces the risk of accidents. There are also potential positive implications for the restaurant and bar industries as the drivers of today can partake in alcohol consumption tomorrow.

Distracted driving

Mobile phone usage while driving is universally banned but as connectivity in cars increases, so too do the concerns over drivers being distracted and thus not fully in control of their vehicle. However, automated driving would not only resolve the issue of distracted driving but also be especially beneficial to the economy as business users can work (or just relax) whilst out on the road. In turn, (driverless) car rental would become a more appealing alternative to public transport.

Driving licenses

Driving licenses would clearly not be required by owners of automated cars, saving millions in administrative and policing costs although the burning question about insurance liability still remains. At this stage, however,“the (UK) government will later give guidance on how MOTs (the annual vehicle safety check in the UK) and car insurance will be affected by the technology” according to the 11 February BBC article.

Car parking

Pressure on the provision of ample car parking space in urban centres, retail and business parks, train stations etc could be relieved as smaller drop-off and pick-up areas could be introduced instead, with cars driving themselves to less-congested areas such as out-of-town car parks and simply returning later. One consideration, however, is whether the fuel costs involved would outweigh parking charges but this would actually favour electric vehicles given their significantly lower running costs and they could of course be recharged whilst idle in non-urban car parks. Driverless cars therefore stand to support electric vehicles, uptake of which has been frustratingly slow as far as governments are concerned.

There are of course negatives associated with the development of driverless cars such as the loss of driving jobs, the insurance liability conundrum and the removal of driving for enjoyment. The latter naturally poses a major problem for manufacturers of cars which appeal to keen drivers and so it will be fascinating to see the strategies that OEMs such as BMW, Porsche, Ferrari develop in response. However, the pros certainly appear to outweigh the cons as far as governments are concerned and so the automotive industry is ultimately facing yet another challenge with policymakers as it already does on the subjects of connectivity, safety, emissions and electric vehicles. Interesting times lie ahead.

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