UK must not let progress on autonomous vehicles be derailed by lack of public support

As the UK moves closer to seeing autonomous vehicles on its roads, Antonios Tsourdos, an engineer at Cranfield University, says the government must not forget the importance of public acceptance of the technology.

Autonomous vehicles are coming and the UK has to keep up – Photo credit: Norbert Aepli, Switzerland, CC BY 3.0 

The technology being used to create driverless cars and drones comes with huge implications for local authorities, but a future of autonomous vehicles also has the potential to bring with it widespread social and economic benefits.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last month launched an inquiry into autonomous vehicles, asking how the smart technology could evolve into a smart, autonomous transport system for the UK.

It’s already clear that there are economic benefits to the UK becoming a world-leading industry in autonomous vehicles – they have been estimated as £51 billion each year.

Meanwhile, they should help improve road safety. Some 93% of road accidents are said to be caused by human error the introduction of driverless vehicles is expected to save 2,500 lives by 2030, as well as reducing the number of serious accidents by 25,000 each year.

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In general, roads and central public areas will be safer for pedestrians through anti-collision and speed control technology, and better traffic management will reduce congestion and lower journey times, reduce CO2 emissions and noise levels.

More use of unmanned aerial vehicles for deliveries and some public services, such as security and monitoring, will also cut traffic volumes. Driverless vehicles won’t need to be parked in crowded central areas, instead being able to tidy themselves up and park out of town.

There will be better access for emergency vehicles thanks to reduced traffic, as well as their ability to interact and alert other vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles will also help address issues linked to the ageing population, by helping older people stay independent, mobile, safe and access more services. And – given that more than a million licensed drivers on UK roads are aged 80 or over – this should mean people are less reliant on travel subsidies and ease the burden on the already-stretched budgets of local authorities.

For local authorities, autonomous vehicles will offer a lower-cost option for delivering services like security, environmental monitoring and refuse collection. Fewer accidents and risks in general means lower insurance costs.

Moreover, investments into the infrastructure for autonomous vehicles should pay for themselves by attracting more business and additional residents looking for next generation access and mobility.

Danger of derailing

Since January 2015, it has been legal for autonomous vehicles to use all UK roads, which indicates that the technology has government’s approval.

However, there is the real concern that progress on an autonomous vehicle future will be derailed before it has begun: there’s nothing inevitable about the transition, especially given the critical role of public support.

There’s a stark difference between autonomous features already available in our cars – such as the assistive technologies like cruise control, self-parking and collision detection – and the principle of allowing computer-controlled ‘robot’ vehicles onto roads.

There’s a paradox here. We only tend to trust technology when it’s under human control, based on human decisions, even when evidence shows that it’s the human frailties that cause accidents, rather than the technology itself.

IT systems and technology of any kind do have the potential to malfunction, meaning that accidents are possible – and these will be more complex and more unexpected than those we’re used to involving human misjudgements and mistakes.

However, in an increasingly litigious society, manufacturers will be more sensitive to accidents involving their vehicles – where it’s no longer the driver but the machine that may be held liable. This could make it harder for industry to maintain an ongoing commitment to autonomous vehicles.

Moreover, cyber-security will be essential, because effective autonomous vehicle systems will rely on transfer of data to and from sensors and between vehicles and whole organising systems.

This is also where the core cost for the public sector comes in – in ensuring a reliable and safe digital infrastructure for telecoms in its domains, the sensors and data crunching that allows autonomy to run.

But most important of all will be securing public understanding and acceptance.

The reality is that any accidents or incidents involving autonomous vehicles in trials on UK roads will be emphasised as evidence of the unreliability of the technology – so it is crucial that those of us working on the technology side are ready to respond to this in a way that improves public engagement with autonomous vehicles.

By gaining the public’s support for the testing and implementation in towns and cities, and doing this in stages, there will be the opportunity for lessons to be learnt without the level of opposition that means transformational benefits are lost.

At Cranfield, we will soon be opening an intelligent mobility road running through the campus, allowing for projects to test combinations of road and aerial vehicles in a real-world – but research-led – environment.

If we want to avoid a difficult journey to an autonomous future what we really need is more collaboration among all the stakeholders in developing, proving and communicating the work to improve the technology. 


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