Why You Won't be Riding a Driverless Car on Britain's Roads Anytime Soon

By Rory Buckeridge on at

It may look like it was designed by Lego’s under-five’s division in collaboration with Nintendo. And the journey – Milton Keynes railway station to the nearby shopping centre – wouldn’t be chosen by Top Gear for one of their million-quid, helicopter buzzing, shouty "car" bits. But on February 11 of this year the Lutz Pathfinder made UK history, performing the first authorised public journey on our fair Isles in a self-piloted car.

The Lutz

This was the first fruit of an announcement in July 2014 made by Business Secretary Vince Cable that the rules on self-driving cars in the UK would be relaxed, and £10m of our money would be thrown at developing the technology in the UK. Cable then commented: “Today's announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society.”

Ignoring the fact that we’re already years behind well established projects in America, Japan and Germany, the driverless car industry is expected to be worth around £900 million by 2025. But what are the implications of this first man-free piloted-tyre on tarmac? And is the UK – or any other country for that matter – ready for this brave new world of AI automotion where we trust a computer-connected steering wheel to ferry us to our destinations in a potentially dangerous contraption? The roads are a dangerous place: the government recently reported that there were 24,580 killed or seriously injured (KSI) road casualties in the year ending June 2014, a four per cent increase compared with the previous year.

Google's cute, early-gen driverless vehicle

Self-piloted cars have been trundling along public highways since Google first took modified cars out onto the streets in 2012, introducing its Tonka Toy-looking, smiley faced car with neither steering wheel nor pedals in May 2014. And the technology – usually a combination of radar, infrared and 3D cameras front and back, GPS and a brain to connect the dots – is still in its infancy.

Plus, there are legion of drawbacks. Google, Audi, BMW, Tesla, Mercedes, and even Apple, are testing their own autonomous driving systems – all of which are powered by their own, proprietary systems. And it’s next to impossible to legislate any industry without a set of agreed standards. There may be trouble ahead.

This isn’t VHS-vs-Betamax or Blu-ray-vs-HD-DVD, though. The world’s governments are happy to let consumers choose a victor in flippant format wars, these are two-tonne killing machines and the most-regulated industry in the world, so at some point the manufacturers are going to have to fall upon an industry standard agreement, or authorities will choose it for them. But what if Germany, already years ahead of the UK in autonomous driving testing, chooses a system different to the UK who, let’s face it, would do pretty much anything to stick a gurning middle finger up to EU law writers?

Let the computer take over over-taking

Even the big cheeses of the automotive industry can’t agree on when the world will be ready for self-piloted cars. Rupert Stadler, Audi's chair of the board of management told T3 back in November last year that there would be self-driving cars on our roads within “two years”. “Bullshit!” Peter Mertens, Volvo’s head of R&D colourfully retorted a month later. Well, it won’t be two years, Herr Stadler, there is no chance that legislation will be passed in that time frame.

As is usually the case, opposition to self-driving cars is most vocal from those who have no experience of it whatsoever. Surprising, huh? But with so few people having experienced this, by all accounts strange and unsettling experience, the automotive industry has an uphill battle winning hearts and minds over a technology mostly untested in the real world. Although, who wouldn’t want to sit behind the wheel on their daily commute merrily Snapchatting, WhatsApping and Tweeting to their heart’s content, while watching back last night’s Better Call Saul? It beats the eye-stinging BO of the commuter next to you on the tube.

Indeed, manufacturers contest that autopiloted cars would be safer. “Computers don't get bored or distracted, or take their eyes off the road because they want to change the radio station or make a phone call,” a spokesman from UK trade association the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders told the Guardian in August 2014. And although that may sound like the car version of the National Rifle Association saying more guns makes society safer, Google’s self-driving car hasn’t so much as nudged another vehicle in over 700,000 miles of testing. Indeed, Google’s cars have only been involved in two shunts: one rear-ended while waiting at some lights, and the other caused by human error by a chap driving the car himself.

Audi's A7 piloted driving concept

In January of this year Audi showcased its autonomous A7 by driving a selection of tech journalists from San Francisco to the CES show in Las Vegas with Wired’s Alex Davies describing the experience as “Mundane, almost boring.” But even that journey was problematic as both California and Nevada have separate and conflicting regulations regarding autonomous driving. And you have to swap number plates. In the same country.

And even though the future seems just around the corner, the recent opening of UK highways to man-free driving is just the first, small step towards playing Candy Crush behind the wheel. It will only be after two-and-half-years of testing – summer 2017 – before the domestic regulations pertaining the driverless cars will be amended to accommodate the new technology, and at least another 18 months after that before international regulations my be tweaked.

And what will need changing? Well, the primary legislation is the Road Traffic Act 1988, and secondary laws including Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, plus EU and international laws including the 1968 Vienna Convention covering road traffic. Let’s not forget, also, the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also want to be at the table. It’s the very definition of an administrative minefield.

Plus, will you need a full licence to “drive” an autonomous car? Can the person behind the wheel have a provisional, or no licence if there’s a full licence carrier seated somewhere? At the moment, it’s illegal to drive and use a mobile phone, but that would be preposterously egregious in a self-piloted vehicle. MOTs will have to be completely overhauled. Should brand new, autonomous cars be checked every year, rather than after three which is currently the case?

In fact, the main legislation that currently directly impacts autonomous driving is the 2006 amendment to the road traffic act concerning mobile phones, with clause F1 41D reading thusly:

Breach of requirements as to control of vehicle, mobile telephones etc.
A person who contravenes or fails to comply with a construction and use requirement:
(a) as to not driving a motor vehicle in a position which does not give proper control or a full view of the road and traffic ahead, or not causing or permitting the driving of a motor vehicle by another person in such a position, or:
(b) to not driving or supervising the driving of a motor vehicle while using a hand-held mobile telephone or other hand-held interactive communication device, or not causing or permitting the driving of a motor vehicle by another person using such a telephone or other device.

Thus making it actually currently illegal to not be in full control of your car, or use a phone or tablet.
Of course, this all means nothing if there’s no consumer interest. As with any disruptive technology, the litmus test will be if the public are on board. Testing will be interesting, too: “Hello! I’d like to not drive your new Audi this morning.” And hitting a button and watching in awe as you car shames you with millimetre perfect parallel parking that would have my old instructor weep with joy, but how will you feel about your car staunchly sitting in the middle lane, the needle not budging past 70 and a constant 40 metres behind the car in front. That would be frustrating, huh?

Would riding a driverless car in fact be a bit boring?

But attitudes seem to be softening, even if surveys seem to openly contradict each other. A 2011 Accenture survey found that 49 per cent of UK and US car owners would be happy owning a driverless car. While a 2012 JD Power survey of 17,400 car owners in America found that 37 per cent of Americans would be interested in a self-driving car, but that dropped to just 20 per cent if the tech were to cost $3,000 (about £1,950) or more.

A 2013 Cisco Systems survey across 10 countries found that overall 57 per cent said they’d be cool with a car that doesn’t require a human driver, with Brazil, India and China most happy with a computer getting them to their destination.

In fact, it seems that the UK alone is a staunch critic of driver-free cars, as a 2014 UK survey suggested that 56 per cent of respondents wouldn’t buy a self driving car, with 60 per cent saying the fear of malfunctioning would be the biggest barrier to entry. Around 32 per cent were worried about hacking, and 29 per cent were concerned about the loss of the enjoyment of driving. (Confusingly, a Digital Spy survey published last week found 58.56 per cent of respondents happy to drive an autonomous car.) Lies, damned lies and statistics, eh?

So what do you think? Will driverless cars ease congestion and move us ever closer to a zero death toll on roads, or are they a flash gimmick that’ll get us all driving like nans on the M1 and cause more congestion? Thoughts below please.

Update: Volvo has just this afternoon announced its 'Drive Me' initiative. A scheme starting in 2016, it will invite 100 new leasers of its XC90 SUV to upgrade their motor to an autonomously driving vehicle. Exciting! Except it’s a strictly Swedes-only event, as the experiment will be exclusively happening on a 50km stretch outside Gothenburg packed with commuters. But this does, however, make Volvo, to our knowledge, the first manufacturer to actually invite members of the public behind the wheels of their self-driving cars with no company employee supervising and scribbling notes on clipboards, and they are confident that the cars can operate with zero mistake tolerance in all weather, road and light conditions. Over to you, BMW, Mercedes and chums…