With reports currently circulating in the media about driverless cars being on UK roads by 2019, we examine the pros and cons of this new technological development and what the future may hold for the human driver.
2019 is expecting to see a group of six driverless cars, known collectively as DRIVEN, completing a test journey from Oxford to London. They will have to navigate and communicate their way around urban streets and motorways without human intervention although there will be a human on board in the event of an emergency. The cars will be running on ‘Level 4 autonomy’, which means that they should be able to navigate their way safely through various types of road networks and situations and be able to take emergency action (such as emergency braking) when needed to avoid any crash hazards, all without human intervention.
The purpose of this trial run, besides seeing how well a group of autonomous cars fare when driven together, is to work out the more intricate complexities that will come with their launch to the general public; for example, looking at when, how and why the cars communicate and share data with each other and to see how to effectively safeguard the user’s data from any cyber attacks. They will also consider how insurance companies should treat autonomous vehicles.
According to the US Department of Transportation, about 90-95% of road traffic accidents are the result of human error. UK Drink Driving Statistics shows an average of 3,000 people are killed or seriously injured in drink drive collisions a year – with 1 in 6 of all road deaths involving drivers over the legal alcohol limit. Worldwide the World Health Organization estimates 1.25 million people die each year on the road. With statistics as high as these is it any wonder that autonomous cars are being hailed as saving us humans from ourselves?
There is a lot of growing support for autonomous cars and definitely a buzz of excitement around them. However, there are those who are still unsure or totally against the idea for the following reasons:
The first known death at the hands of an autonomous car occurred on May 7, 2016, when Joshua Brown of Florida put his Tesla Model S into autopilot mode. The autopilot sensors failed to distinguish a white tractor-trailer crossing the highway against a bright sky, resulting in the car attempting to drive full speed under the trailer “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S” Tesla said in a blog post. Mr Brown died at the scene.
This came just four months after autopilot was cited in the death of a Chinese Tesla driver, Gao Yaning, who died when his Tesla Model S slammed into a road sweeper on a highway whilst driving at highway speed. Footage broadcast on the Chinese government channel CCTV showed that when the car approached “the road sweeper, the car didn’t put on the brake or avoid it,” a police officer said in the CCTV report. “Instead, it crashed right into it.” However, in an emailed statement from Tesla shortly after the accident, the company said that it had not been able to determine whether Autopilot was active at the time of the accident.
E-safety is another area of autonomous cars that has proven to be a cause for concern. In the age of cyber attacks, computer viruses, identity theft, phishing scams and the like, more and more of us are becoming increasingly aware and concerned over how our personal data is collected, stored and shared. In order for the autonomous car to work and to be effective, it needs to be able to store and share user’s data. Insurance companies, for example, need to be able to base their policies on precise driving habits, safety, and how many miles people actually drive – not just what they say they do.
It will also rely on crowd-sourced data on platforms such as Waze, which is a community-based traffic awareness app that is heavily reliant on crowd-sourced traffic reports and then, of course, there’s your personal data including locations and stop time. In a scenario that might seem possible only as a plot to a new Hollywood Sci-Fi thriller, owners could potentially have their cars hacked – resulting in accidents or even with the owner being held to ransom in order to regain control over their vehicle. Does this sound too far fetched? Consider what happened in July 2015 with a Jeep Cherokee.
Two security researchers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, who had previously been successful in hacking a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape, were able to successfully exploit a security bug in the Uconnect system using nothing more than a laptop and a mobile phone on the Sprint network. This was enough to allow them to apply the brakes, kill the engine and control the steering – eventually forcing the car into a ditch – all without needing to make physical contact with the car. This was done as an experiment with Wired reporter Andy Greenberg.
In addition to this there is also a very real threat of ransomware. Ransomware is nothing new, but Mikko Hypponen, a Finnish security expert, worries that it will become more prevalent as the number of autonomous cars on the roads increase. As he states, criminals now make as much as 95% of all malware using hacking to make millions of dollars, and it is these criminals who pose the biggest threat.
“Legacy manufacturers who build cars have a long history of safety but not of security, and that’s why they are starting to learn the hard way. Now they take it seriously – and last year was a wake-up call,” he said of the Jeep hack in 2016.
Even if all the above doesn’t put you off from owning one when they become available to the general public, there are still those of us who actually ENJOY driving and who are responsible drivers. The forecast for us human drivers looks bleak, with some reports suggesting that human-controlled cars will be eventually forbidden to drive on the road (with the exemption of some geo-fenced areas or on race tracks etc). Mikko Hypponen isn’t too concerned:
“The internet has brought us more good than bad. Overall, technology improves our lives and business, even with the risks. And I’ll be able to watch cat videos on YouTube while I’m ‘driving’”.
This is a complex issue, and the points above have barely scratched the surface. Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo says..
“There are multiple benefits to AD cars. That is why governments need to put in place the legislation to allow AD cars onto the streets as soon as possible. AD is not just about car technology. We need the right rules and the right laws.”
Autonomous cars – good or bad? Have your say below.