In good news for fans of iRobot, the government has announced that “real world” tests of driverless cars can begin immediately on UK roads.
Unfortunately this doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing unmanned cars floating along the M8 any time soon. Until the actual legislation governing vehicles has been changed to accommodate and regulate driverless cars, automated vehicles will still require a driver present throughout all testing.
Accompanying the announcement was a promise to review the legislation that governs driverless vehicles. This will involve rewriting the Highway Code, making adjustments to the MOT test guidelines and possibly raising the standard of driving required from automated vehicles.
The review will also consider how to apportion blame in the event of a crash. This strikes us as one of the most interesting questions facing legislators. Who is to blame when a machine is in control? Is it the passenger? The manufacturer? The programmer? The car itself? Is anyone actually to blame?
Transport minister Claire Perry led the announcement and waxed lyrical about the her plasn for the future. She said:
“I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting new development, to embrace a technology that could transform our roads and open up a brand new route for global investment.”
Governmental types like Perry and others at the Department for Transport hope that their measures will help establish the United Kingdom as a developmental hotspot and future leader in driverless technology. Indeed, some £19m has already been invested in four driverless schemes across the country, including an automated shuttle in Greenwich and a Wildcat vehicle developed by BAE Systems.
But of the four projects, one stole the show. Out of the University of Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Group comes the Lutz Pathfinder, a pod-like vehicle resplendent in Union Flag livery.
With its odd boxy design and skinny profile it’s reminds us of the Tiny Tike Cosy Coupe.
A Mixed Response
Response to the announcements have been mixed. While some are ready to embrace the new technology and leap head first into a world of automation and machines, some are taking a more pragmatic approach. The Institute of the Motor Industry identified weaknesses in the service and repair sector that would hamstring any widespread commercialisation in the near future.
High tech cars do need high tech garages, I suppose.
Director of the RAC Foundation Prof Stephen Glaister was equally analytical, saying:
“These trials are not just about harnessing technology to make our travelling lives easier and safer, they also involve getting the regulation right.
“Alongside the hi-tech innovation you need policy decisions on long-term, low-tech matters such as who takes responsibility if things go wrong. As and when these vehicles become commonplace, there is likely to be a shift from personal to product liability and that is a whole new ball game for insurers and manufacturers.”
However, innovation doesn’t get driven forward without head-in-the-cloud romantics and, thankfully, the driverless technology world isn’t short on them.
Steve Yianni, chief executive of Transport Systems Catapult is pushing for tomorrow’s technology yesterday.
“Technology such as driverless vehicles, intelligent phone apps, and social media, will transform how we travel in the future – making journeys safer, faster, and more connected.
“Through the Lutz Pathfinder programme, the Transport Systems Catapult has pioneered the introduction of driverless pods in Milton Keynes and the first ever tests in the UK will take place later this year in a controlled public environment.”
While we’ve got some ways to go before we can safely read the paper on the way to work, the future looks very bright for driverless cars.