Self-driving cars – five key issues
Volvo Cars helped to pave the way for self-driving cars that will make journeys safer by discussing the key issues surrounding their introduction at a seminar in London.
The event, which was hosted by Volvo Cars and Thatcham, the UK motor insurers’ research organisation, brought together some of the UK’s top experts in the field of autonomous driving. Here are the five key themes that were discussed:
1. “Driverless cars” are still a long way off
The panel of experts agreed that autonomous driving technology will arrive in stages and that the reality of a truly “driverless” car that needs no human input for any A to B journey is still many years away.
Ian Forbes, Head of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, a Government policy unit aimed at making the UK a leader in autonomous vehicle technology: “I don’t think this is a problem you can cover all at once. There’s a temptation to head off to the far-distant future when cars are fully driverless and to think about what that might mean for our current system. But I think there are problems that we need to address now.”
Erik Coelingh, Senior Technical Leader, Safety and Driver Support Technologies, Volvo Cars: “We think the task of making a self-driving car that can go from any A to any B during any weather or traffic conditions is just too big, so we have decreased the scope very significantly. But within the limited scope we have to prove that the self-driving car can deal with all thinkable traffic scenarios that can occur.
“That’s the real challenge with a fully autonomous vehicle. It’s not to do a demo drive and prove that the car can drive itself. It is to make sure the car can deal with anything that may happen on the road. Exceptional situations such as debris falling from a truck, a pedestrian on the freeway or an elk crossing the road. The car has to be able to deal with that, because the driver won’t – they’ll be doing something else.”
2. Liability is important
Liability in the event of a collision was one of the main themes. Volvo Cars has already announced that it will be responsible for the actions of its self-driving cars when in Autopilot mode and this statement was a key talking point.
Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo Car Group President and CEO: “Liability is crucial. We don’t believe it’s a very bold statement to say ‘when the car is in autonomous mode it’s a product liability issue, if that system malfunctions it’s our responsibility’. I think if you are not prepared to make this statement then you really have no product to offer. Who wants an autopilot you have to supervise? Either you do this or you shouldn’t be in the business.
“I think what we can offer supports the insurance industry. If something goes wrong it’s our problem. Having a clear statement is a constructive input to the industry.”
3. Autonomous cars must be good mixers
One of the recurring themes was that autonomous cars must be able to interact well with manually-driven vehicles and other road users, especially in the early stages of their introduction to public roads.
Matthew Avery, Director of Research, Thatcham Research: “One of the key issues is that these systems will be very cautious to start with, so they will always leave a safe distance, which means that other more aggressive drivers – in manually-driven cars – will fill those gaps.
“As an autonomous driver you may get a little bit frustrated with your vehicle being so cautious. If you are allowed to do something else – such as watching catch-up TV – you won’t care about people jumping in front of you. But if you have to sit there and monitor your automated systems you’ll override them because you’ll get so frustrated.”
Erik Coelingh: “I don’t think we know the unintended consequences of self-driving cars mixed in with the traffic system as we know it today. In order to find out you have to do it. Self-driving cars will follow traffic rules, but exactly how other road users will react to them we do not know. By deploying cars on the public road and observing what’s happening around the cars we will gain a better understanding.”
4. Road laws will have to change
Cooperation between car manufacturers, road authorities, insurance companies and government agencies to develop the right infrastructure will be crucial to making the most of the benefits of self-driving cars, the experts agreed.
Håkan Samuelsson: We really need a fruitful cooperation with the authorities. We need to remove all legal obstacles in order to make self-driving a reality.”
Peter Shaw, Chief Executive, Thatcham Research: “In five years time the automotive space will have changed significantly. Road traffic regulations will change.”
5. Know your limits
The experts agreed that, as autonomous driving technology develops, one of the most important considerations will be that drivers are aware of its limitations. Some also suggested that drivers might need additional training.
James Dalton, Director, General Insurance Policy, Association of British Insurers: “Ensuring consumers understand the limits of vehicle autonomy will be critically important. We know all too well from conventional vehicles that drivers misunderstand what their cars can and cannot do.”
“In my personal view, the use of the term driverless cars is not only misleading but potentially dangerous. At least until the very long-term, a car is going to require a trained, competent and sober driver to oversee its operation even if it is operating autonomously.”
Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo Car Group President and CEO: “I think some special training might be needed. These are the kind of questions that will arise when you start using this technology. Let’s test it and see how we should regulate it.”