Autonomous vehicles are the latest disruptive technology to get the media all fired up. The futuristic vision of being able to sit in the back of a car, catching up on emails whilst having Alexa or Siri reading us our personalised pick of the news of the day seems just years away. If you believe the hype. The technology may be here, or at least emerging, for autonomous cars but I still believe that there has been a lack of thorough understanding of what the term ‘autonomous’ actually means and in fact what needs to be put in place before we get anywhere near to what the public perceive to be autonomous driving.

Ask most journalists and the general public what autonomous vehicles are and they will quite understandably say ‘a car with no driver’.  For me there is an enormous difference between the terms ‘driverless’ and ‘autonomous’. In my mind ‘autonomous’ is the stages of development which will allow a car to take more decisions on behalf of the driver, which in turn could lead to, as some believe, driverless.

So will all of this really happen? My view is that, with some planning, we could be close to some level of autonomous however fully driverless is a long, long way away.

On the plus side, I see a real positive in assisting our ageing population. I, like many others, will want to drive as long as possible and the features of autonomy will help me do this. The technology will, for instance, render it impossible for me to drive the wrong way down a motorway and it will supplement my reactions if I am drifting in lanes or getting too close to other vehicles. Japanese manufacturers are really behind this technology as the country’s population is getting older with 32 million people over the age of 65 and 9 million over 80 years old. If the older generations stopped buying cars then it would financially impact on the car makers so it is in their interests to allow people to drive longer and continue buying cars. This is why I believe that we will have driverless vehicles in certain situations and in controlled areas. However, it’s a huge leap from technology in a controlled environment to a world where we will have millions of cars driving on urban and rural public roads without a driver and these are my top three question marks over why that is the case:

Are we ready to relinquish control?
A fundamental point to me, which is often overlooked, is that we, as humans are continually living in an environment where our daily cognitive activity is being reduced – in plain terms, we are thinking less. The brain, as research has shown, needs cognitive activity to continue to function. The daily drive to work requires a process where a multitude of visual and hearing data is fed to the brain every second asking for a decision to be made. Try it by driving to work and be aware of how many decisions a person makes, even if it is just the thought patterns to decide when it is safe to change lane. I think my stress level will be very high if I am sitting in front of a steering wheel hands and feet at the ready…just in case. I would rather be in control and I’m sure many others will feel exactly the same.

Can we really rely on assistive technology in difficult situations?
I also find it difficult to believe that vehicles will be able to rely solely on GPS and assistive technology to allow them to navigate difficult situations – just imagine a windy country lane in fog, with a driver sitting in the back for example. I know that there is technology to spot a child running in front of a vehicle but how does that apply to a horse rider around a blind corner on a country road? We as humans have a feeling in us when approaching certain features based on ‘gut feel’ and years of driving. Will this build-up of tacit knowledge ever be replicable?

When will the insurance industry be ready?
The insurance industry is not known for its pace of change and this is one area where I think we will see a real struggle. I was recently interviewed by BBC radio and followed a representative from the insurance industry. They were campaigning for the car industry to release data from the vehicle to help determine who was liable in an accident. The blurred lines with autonomous vehicles and liability is something that I just don’t think the insurance industry will be geared up for any time soon. Can you imagine, in the case of an accident, a situation where the car – not the individual – was to blame? Who pays out then? Is it the manufacturer of the driver?

So, without wanting to sound like a cynic, I think we should be talking about autonomous vehicles as something that will inevitably hit our roads but in two ways. Firstly, as cars with assistive technology to aid (not take over from) the driver. And secondly, driverless in a completely regulated environment such as driving in commercial complexes or between buildings.

I just can’t see myself being sat at the back of the car with my cup of tea listening to the news with no driver any time soon.

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