Self-driving cars had been all the rage until tragedy struck this week with news that an Uber car trialling the technology killed a woman in a crash.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, became the world’s first fatal victim of a driverless vehicle after the collision in Phoenix, Arizona, which prompted Uber to suspend its self-driving programme.

As questions are asked about how much blame should be attached to the technology, is this just an inevitable bump in the road for autonomous vehicles – which are also being trialled in Greenwich – or could their future be in danger?

Compelo approached experts and researchers for their views.

Waymo driverless car

Air travel isn’t abandoned when a plane crashes

James Nunns, editor of Computer Business Review, does not believe the crash will damage the future of driverless cars.

He says: “The reality is that tech companies such as Uber and Google are investing millions of pounds into driverless cars, as are major car manufacturers like BMW, Toyota and Volkswagen – likely pointing to there being too much momentum for development to stop.

“The technology is in its infancy and things aren’t always going to go to plan.

“In this case it has unfortunately led to a death, but just as air travel isn’t abandoned when a plane crashes, the same will be the case of the driverless car.

“With any technological breakthrough that involves large pieces of metal moving at high speeds there are risks.

“Thomas Selfridge became the first airplane passenger to die when Orville Wright’s plane crashed in 1908, but despite fears at the time, the benefits of air travel far outweighed the risks.

“The same can be said of driverless cars now.

“Reviews of the technology will likely continue, and accidents will place it under closer scrutiny, but driverless cars are here to stay.”

Driverless car (via Flckr user jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson))

 

What are the safety concerns with self-driving vehicles?

The Arizona crash has led to calls for greater regulation in driverless car technology before further tests are carried out.

The Centre for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group in the US, said the cars “lack proper regulatory oversight” and claimed humans were being used as “guinea pigs” in the experiment.

Some observers believe the car, which has seven external cameras and a spinning laser called a lidar on the roof to create a real-time 360-degree view surrounding the vehicle, should have been able to brake in time.

Other concerns relate to cyber security, with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology warning that hackers could take control over self-driving cars.

In the UK, safety issues, such as the driver not being in control, were cited as a main disadvantage of driverless cars by 65 per cent of respondents to a 2016 survey of 850 people carried out by St Helens-based Northern Connectors, which supplies components to automotive firms for both driverless and conventional vehicles.

Google’s driverless car (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Some 49 per cent were worried that machines would struggle with ethical decisions that present themselves on the road and 50 per cent agreed there would be uncertainty over who would be held responsible in the event of a crash.

Two-thirds said they would rather own a manual car, citing the joy of driving, freedom it affords them and lack of trust in driverless technology.

Northern Connectors general manager Scott Jones says: “Can a driverless car decide whether to swerve to avoid a collision if it meant hitting another car?

“Who will be held responsible if a driverless car causes a crash?

“How long will it take to recharge an electric battery? Could it run out halfway through a journey?

“These are all valid questions for which people will want answers before they are able to place their trust in the new technologies.”

But a report by Deloitte released on Monday, shortly before the crash on the same day, had shown an increased consumer confidence.

Just under half (49 per cent) of its UK respondents believed autonomous vehicles will not be safe, down from 73 per cent the previous year.

Some 53 per cent said they would feel better about travelling in a driverless car manufactured by a trusted brand, a nine per cent rise on 2017.

 

The difference between invention and innovation

Professor Glenn Lyons is chairman of global engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald’s Future Transport Initiative, as well as a member of the Department for Transport’s joint analysis development panel and trustee of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation.

He says: “Some would argue that it was only a matter of time before an inevitable consequence of this push forwards was a fatality such as has now occurred in Arizona.

“Online media has subsequently been alive with speculation and contrasting judgements regarding what this means for autonomous vehicles.

Professor Glenn Lyons is chairman of global engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald’s Future Transport Initiative

“Some suggest that the ultimate prize of reduced or eradicated fatalities on our roads is worth the price of this regrettable loss of human life.

“Others suggest that this is a sign of an industry push in a highly complex and emotive area that is trying to go too far and too fast.

“In my own view, autonomous vehicles are showing distinct signs of following a technology cycle of hype as depicted by Gartner – namely that having reached a crescendo of market noise and expectation they are beginning a descent towards what Gartner refer to as a ‘trough of disillusionment’ – as we discover that there is a big difference between invention and innovation.

“It may be technologically possible to create self-driving cars but is society ready for them?”

 

 

When self-driving vehicles could become the norm – and how they should be regulated

The UK has joined the US in trials, which are currently taking place in Greenwich, London, where autonomous pods drive around as part of the GATEway Project.

But a survey by car marketplace Auto Trader last year found that 23 per cent of people don’t believe fully-autonomous vehicles will be available to buy in their lifetime.

A further 49 per cent said they had no interest in self-driving cars.

A driverless pod in Greenwich, which is being trialled as part of the GATEway Project (via GATEway Project)

Dan Whaley, artificial intelligence consultant at Newcastle interaction design agency Orange Bus, says: “Although there is much hype on the subject, it’s probably at least 15 years until they become the norm in everyday transport, and there will probably be a huge number of technology pivots and failed project along the way.

“Regulating this nascent industry is a huge task for governments and the temptation will be to create a rigid framework from the top down.

“However, in all likelihood, such a framework will either completely stifle innovation or become out dated so quickly that it will be rendered highly ineffective.

“So what’s the alternative? In my opinion, adopting an agile approach to regulation development makes sense and has parallels in other industries, such as medical testing.

“Instead of trying to think of all the possible scenarios in advance, regulators need to work with innovators to conduct controlled trials with an ever-growing remit.

“Working together they can discover the limitations of the technology as well as users’ and ethical tolerance. In this way we can co-design the legislation appropriate to the problem space.”