The UK government has recently announced that, from January 2015, driverless cars will be allowed on public roads.

August is National Road Victims Month, promoted by the charity RoadPeace. Every year, especially during this month, the charity raises awareness to remember those killed or injured on our roads. Every day, five people in the UK and 3,900 worldwide die on the roads, and as many as one in 75 of us is bereaved through a road traffic accident.

As a personal injury solicitor, I represent many road traffic accident victims and I am very familiar with the devastation that such accidents can cause. I therefore found it very interesting to hear about the introduction of driverless vehicles, which automotive experts believe have the potential to improve road safety.

Until recent times, cars like Kitt from Knight Rider were works of pure fiction. The UK motoring industry has witnessed the introduction of various autonomous functions within its vehicles over the years. Such technological advances have included cruise control, automatic braking, anti-lane drift and self- parking. The next major advance is set to be introduced in January 2015, when there will be vehicles on our roads that have the ability to take charge of steering, acceleration, indication and braking during most, if not all, of a particular journey.

Why Introduce Driverless Vehicles?

Driverless vehicles will have the ability to identify the location of accidents or road congestion ahead, and then automatically re-route. They will also be able to connect wirelessly with traffic lights and regulate speed so that the car reaches the lights whilst they are green every time. It has been suggested that they will improve congestion and even help reduce emissions.

Of all its potential benefits, the promise of improved safety is undoubtedly the most attractive prospect. Unlike humans who can get tired, bored, drunk and distracted, a computer doesn’t have the ability to take its eyes off the road. It is intended that these driverless vehicles will help reduce the current figure of 2,000 people that die in car accidents on the road each year.

Other countries have been quicker off the mark in allowing driverless cars onto public roads and the government does not want the UK to get left behind. It was Japan that carried out the first public road test of an autonomous vehicle on the highway in 2013. Also, in America, the states of California, Nevada and Florida have all approved tests of such vehicles.

The Concerns

As with any technology, no matter how groundbreaking, there is the potential for malfunction. According to a study carried out by Churchill Car Insurance, the majority of UK adults that took part in the study (56%) said that they would not purchase a driverless car and 25% believed that autonomous vehicles will not be safe.

Malfunction is the biggest concern, with 60% of people fearing that the vehicle’s computer will be unreliable. This is hardly surprising; I am sure that most people will have experienced the frustration of having a faulty laptop, mobile phone or printer, but having the same type of issues with a car could have much more devastating consequences.

Furthermore, 56% of people fear the lack of human control. I can appreciate this too, because human interaction between road users, such as eye contact and hand signaling, plays a huge part in regulating the way traffic moves. Dealing with the absence of this needs careful planning. By the time that driverless cars are implemented, all road users will need to be aware that other vehicles are capable of being operated autonomously.

In addition to the potential risk of physical injury, 32% of people have concerns over cyber security and privacy issues, such as hacking. Only 8% of people had no fears at all about driverless cars.

Who will be liable for collisions caused by driverless cars?

The Department for Transport (DFT) has said that this same regime of strict manufacturer liability, which currently applies to systems such as anti-lock braking and adaptive cruise control, is likely to also apply to driverless cars.

The DFT has pointed out that, in the case of technological failure, current regulations require that cars are designed to warn drivers of a particular fault and that the system then reverts to a fail-safe mode. The DFT have said that they would require driverless cars to follow the same philosophy.

Next Steps

Cities in the UK that want to host one of the trials for driverless cars have until the start of October 2014 to declare their interest. A £10million fund has been created to cover their costs, which will be divided amongst the three winning cities. From January 2015, the tests are expected to run for 18 to 36 months.

Meanwhile, the DFT have until the end of 2014 to publish a review of the road regulations. This review will cover the need for driverless vehicles to comply with safety and traffic laws and it will also cover changes to the Highway Code. The review will examine how the new rules will apply to vehicles where the driver can take back control and also how they will apply to vehicles that have no driver at all.

Final thoughts

Despite these futuristic technological advances, our roads are still a long way from being accident free. Even if the UK’s roads eventually became entirely driverless, accidents will still be caused by innumerable variables, such as system errors, pedestrians and complete chance. As a result, there may be proportionally fewer claims against other motorists and more against manufacturers.