Research suggests that we could see approximately 10 million autonomous vehicles (AVs) on our roads by 2020, with major manufacturers and technology heavyweights alike already testing their driverless inventions on public highways.
There are a number of benefits, both socially and economically, that driverless vehicles promise, from reducing road deaths to easing congestion.
With human drivers being at fault for the majority of accidents involving vehicles – whether that's due to lack of concentration, misjudging others or being distracted – above all, AVs will improve safety on roads.
Through the use of connected vehicle technology, connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) will also enable more efficient routes and journey times and, as a result, reduce fuel consumption, emissions and congestion.
For current drivers, CAVs will give them back the precious gift of time. The average driver in England spends 235 hours driving every year - that's the equivalent of six working weeks. If a driver hands full autonomy over to the vehicle, the time they would normally spend operating the vehicle could instead be spent doing anything, from reading a book to playing a computer game.
Better yet, once the technology is in place to offer door-to-door journeys without the need for a driver, AVs will offer those who cannot currently drive a chance to get to their destination, improving mobility for all.
But before the mass adoption of driverless cars can happen, and the UK can become the global centre for production, what issues stand in the way for the industry?
According to research carried out by our firm, which allows businesses to calculate their digital risk score, the main digital risks for the automotive industry included external cyber-attack, regulatory issues and infrastructure risks.
Data, and how it is shared, is at the heart of CAVs, so manufacturers will need to get their head around complex data protection regulation if driverless cars are to become a reality. Data will power many CAV functions, but carmakers and technology companies must be mindful of the public's anxiety about losing control of their data, and be realistic in their approach to mandatory data sharing.
The moral algorithm
There will be countless societal benefits of CAVs, but the ethical dimensions of the technology should not be underestimated. On what basis can the industry programme a set of moral values into a driverless vehicle? With automotive technology significantly outpacing regulation, the programming and testing of self-driving vehicles need to run in parallel with the development of industry-wide regulation to minimise harm to both man and machine and encourage growth.
To enable CAVs to operate with little or no human input, they will use information from on-board sensors and from the surrounding digital environment to tell them where they are and what is around them. Is it possible or even feasible to make these new vehicles cyber resilient? With only 15% of people feeling in control of their online personal data, are CAVs simply opening another door for malicious hackers? How do the motor industry and law makers need to react to the increased importance of all-things-cyber while they develop CAVs?
In order to see driverless vehicles on our roads, the roads need to be ready for them. We are seeing rapid developments by way of smart cities, but how autonomous vehicles will interact with the physical infrastructure is still not certain. What is certain is that it will be a gradual process, meaning some areas will be better prepared than others. The government is currently waiting for recommendations on infrastructure to be published, but will this happen soon enough to ensure the UK can be a leader in the development of driverless vehicles?
As the only law firm involved in UK Autodrive, the largest consortia currently trialling automated vehicle technology as part of a government-backed initiative to support the introduction of self-driving vehicles into the UK, Gowling WLG is contributing to the thinking on societal and legal issues around the development of autonomous vehicles by developing a series of white papers.
As part of the series we explore these issues further, discussing society's perception of driverless cars, the need for regulation in the sector and the challenges the industry faces.