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Self-driving cars will crash, warns UK expert
By Steve Huntingford • 12/11/2015
Head of government policy unit says autonomous cars won’t be infallible, even though they have the potential to dramatically reduce road deaths
Self-driving cars could slash the number of deaths on British roads – but only if the public keeps faith with them when the inevitable accidents occur, according to the head of the government policy unit responsible for overseeing their introduction.
Iain Forbes, from the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Driving, said: “There are currently 1,700 deaths a year on British roads, despite them being some of the safest in the world. And while autonomous cars could reduce that figure by up to 90 per cent, people would still have to be comfortable with 170 deaths a year. The technology will only reach its full potential if it can withstand failures.”
Forbes also admitted that predictions of what will happen in the future are notoriously unreliable, and that consequently UK legislation on the use of self-driving cars will be introduced as needed.
“The government policy is to address issues as they emerge rather than try and come up with one big, catch-all law,” he said. “After all, in 1894 The Times predicted that over the following 50 years the use of horse-drawn carriages would increase to such an extent that every street in London would be covered with 9ft of horse manure. I don’t know about you, but my history lessons didn’t suggest that was the big problem facing the country in 1944.”
Forbes was speaking at a conference on the future impact of self-driving cars, and was joined by Caroline Coates, head of automotive sector at the law firm DWF, and Ian Parker, director of highways at the construction company Mace.
Coates explained that the UK is currently one of the most attractive locations in the EU for developing self-driving cars because it hasn’t ratified the Vienna Convention, which stipulates that a driver must be in control of a car at all times. However, she warned that it could soon face much greater competition, because there are proposals to amend the convention to allow autonomous cars as long as the driver can take back control.
Parker added that while most of the technology needed to make self-driving cars work will be in the cars themselves, some of it will need to be embedded at the roadside. As a result we are unlikely to see cars that always drive themselves anytime soon, but Parker claimed that the majority of traffic in the UK is concentrated on just 2 per cent of the road network, making it easy to decide which roads should get the technology first.
In the Spring Budget, the government announced that £100m would be ploughed into research and development of autonomous cars and the systems they require over the next five years, with the aim of establishing the UK as a global hub for the development of the technologies.