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Building the framework

Nevada granted the first license ever for an autonomous truck. (Photo: Daimler)

Automated cars will soon be ready for the road. But will the road be ready for them? Will we have proper rules in place to regulate the new traffic? If automated driving is to get out of first gear, these issues need to be resolved urgently: the adaptation of existing laws, liability in the case of accidents and improvements to infrastructure.

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Automated cars will soon be ready for the road. But will the road be ready for them? Will we have proper rules in place to regulate the new traffic? If automated driving is to get out of first gear, these issues need to be resolved urgently: the adaptation of existing laws, liability in the case of accidents and improvements to infrastructure.

One thing is certain – there’s a bumpy road ahead for autonomous driving.

Driverless cars will bring disruptive and even revolutionary changes. They will re-define the way we live and work. And that, inevitably, will create challenges to various fields of society. The first step toward autonomous driving is bold and forward-looking decision-making. 

Politics and legislation: changing the rules

Technological revolutions have always gotten lawmakers into trouble – struggling to keep the pace in regulating an ever-changing world. When the printing press was invented, it took Great Britain hundreds of years of legal debates to establish copyright laws.

Similarly, driverless car technology has advanced so quickly it has outstripped existing legislation. While steps have been taken to address this problem, much more needs to be done. Given the speed at which the technological development and society are moving at today, this time around we don’t have hundreds of years to clarify the legal framework.

Several US states and Washington DC have passed laws allowing driverless cars to operate on public roads – with Nevada famously becoming the first to do so in 2011.

In Europe, the Vienna Convention of 1968 – which states that a driver must be in control of his vehicle at all times – was amended to prepare for cars partially driving themselves. 

However, laws worldwide still require that a driver is always monitoring and able to take over the steering wheel at any time, like a pilot. If a higher level of automation is to be achieved – where, in certain situations like highway driving, users do not have to monitor their car at all – further legal changes will be necessary.

Meanwhile, politicians around the world are beginning to speak up for the new technology. By supporting research and development, they recognize they can build confidence and draw together automakers, motorists and professionals working in the IT, transport and communications sectors.

Test-driving of autonomous vehicles on public roads is permitted in a growing number of countries, including France, Germany, Singapore, Sweden and the UK. In fact, in an effort to showcase their advanced technology on the world’s biggest stage, lawmakers in Japan are actively supporting efforts to start pilot testing self-driving taxis in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It is thought the taxis could be used in certain situations like transporting athletes from the Olympic village to events.

But progress has been piecemeal. A more comprehensive, coordinated and global approach would help minimize uncertainty, encourage investment, reduce delays and keep down costs.

Liability: who’s to blame?

Disputes over liability may prove to be the biggest obstacle to autonomous driving.

The more automated cars become the safer our roads become. However, we are unlikely to be at the stage of ruling out accidents entirely for quite some time. This begs a difficult question: who will be held responsible if accidents do happen that involve cars with some level of automated function?

Volvo accepts liability for the actions of its self-driving cars
Volvo accepts liability for the actions of its self-driving cars. (Photo: Volvo)

Volvo has taken the bold step of saying it will accept full liability when one of its cars crashes while in autonomous mode. But if a defective vehicle causes a catastrophic accident, a crippling law suit could follow. Rather than face that risk, other automakers might decide to steer clear of driverless car manufacturing altogether.

If things go wrong, other stakeholders will be aware that liability could also fall on them: parts manufacturers; broadband providers; the software maker; the person who serviced the car. A “driver” may even have to prove that his vehicle was in autonomous driving mode at the time of an accident in order to establish that a defect was to blame.

Data recording could prove vital. One way forward may be for driverless cars to be fitted with devices similar to the flight recorder, or black box, placed in aircrafts to help accident investigators.

Insurers will also need to move quickly to protect themselves. An estimated 90 percent of road accidents are caused by human error. By taking people out of the equation, autonomous cars will have a dramatic effect on road safety – but they could also bankrupt insurance firms. User-based insurance – or pay as you drive – offers one possible cost-effective solution. Coverage would be based on mileage and driving behavior, the data gathered from in-vehicle telecommunications devices.

Infrastructure: paving the way

A lot of work will have to be done to prepare our roads for autonomous vehicles.

Superfast broadband services will need to be standard if the driverless car revolution is to get into full gear. 5G – the upcoming fifth generation mobile network - will have increased speeds and capacities to meet new use cases such as this. It will have to be rolled out wherever autonomous driving will take place as higher data transfer speeds and greater data storage capacities will be essential.

High speed broadband will be a prerequisite for AD to prevail
High speed broadband will be a prerequisite for AD to prevail. (Photo: kynny / iStock)

In gearing up for the widespread deployment of fully automated or autonomous driving, money will also have to be spent on roadside transmitters and wireless sensor nodes that tell vehicles about traffic jams and lane closures. Japan leads the way here with 1,600 “ITS Spots” already installed on highways nationwide.

In the case of autonomous driving, the future may even require widespread changes to our basic road infrastructure– standardized and highly visible road signs and signals, for example, or the creation of more drop-off and pick-up points outside buildings. Clearly, many questions – big and small – will need to be answered. What kind of street lighting will work best for radar vision rather than human sight? How will autonomous cars affect travel behavior? Will car-sharing become common, reducing traffic on our roads? Or will the ease of autonomous driving increase vehicle ownership, encouraging longer commutes and creating urban sprawl? With automated driving technology advancing so rapidly those answers won’t be long coming.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for automated driving? More importantly: any ideas for overcoming them?

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