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Driverless cars: Safer UK Roads?

Posted on 20th April 2016

Last month, the Government announced £20 million funding for eight autonomous vehicle projects aimed at developing driverless car technology. According to Business Secretary Sajid Javid, this will “make getting from A to B safer, faster and cleaner”.

Some of the highlights of these projects include:

  • Exploring the benefits of “talking car” technologies. More than 40 miles of roads in Coventry will be equipped with technology to aid autonomous vehicles.
  • Developing driverless shuttles, with the aim of providing transport for disabled and visually impaired people
  • Improving the understanding of users’ needs for autonomous vehicles
  • Reducing the cost of testing driverless systems
  • Exploring technologies to monitor vehicle data to predict safety risks

Volvo’s “Drive Me” project in Gothenburg is already underway and is expected to provide normal families with fully autonomous vehicles on certain roads in 2017. Toyota plans to provide a vehicle with highway autonomy by 2020 and Google’s driverless cars have been on the roads in California for 6 years. With millions of pounds being invested in these projects, it seems likely that we will see some form of driverless cars on our UK roads in the not so distant future.

The majority of road traffic accidents are caused by driver error so will driverless cars make car accidents a thing of the past? Logic tells us that autonomous vehicles will have no room for human error which is the major cause of road traffic accidents. Computers are able to react a lot faster than humans and driverless cars are expected to warn drivers of hazards and alert them to road traffic accidents. Driverless cars and will be required to obey all road traffic laws and the Highway Code so as to significantly reduce collisions, deaths and injuries.

But this still raises some difficult questions about safety. A computer is only as good as it is programmed to be. Our roads are complex and it is often difficult to predict what a driver will do in any given circumstance. Before driverless cars are allowed onto our roads we need to be sure that they are designed and programmed to behave appropriately in all environments.

There is also the question of whether they will be trusted by people used to being in control of their own vehicle. A lot of people don’t like the idea of handing control to a machine or computer. If drivers enjoy driving their own car and feel confident in their ability to react to hazards, are they going to be ready to hand the control over to an autonomous computer, however technologically advanced it may be?

Initially the plans are for “highly automated” vehicles where a driver would be expected to take control of the vehicle at any time. Drivers would still be subject to the Road Traffic Act and could still be prosecuted for offences such as drink driving or using a mobile phone. The test driver would be expected to take responsibility for ensuring that the vehicle was operating safely at all times, whether in manual or autonomous mode.

The road safety charity, Brake, welcomes the trials of driverless cars and considers that they could transform the way we use the road and help to ensure everyone can get around through safe, sustainable and affordable means.

I am still not certain as to how much safer the UK roads will be with driverless cars, as technology can also have its faults. However with millions of pounds of funding being invested, it will be interesting to see how the projects develop. Let’s hope we are a step closer to reducing road deaths and injuries in the UK.

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