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An engineer points to a Huawei Mate 10 Pro mobile used to control a driverless car during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Image: An engineer points to a Huawei Mate 10 Pro mobile used to control a driverless car during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Driverless Cars: Stuck In The Mud?

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Image: An engineer points to a Huawei Mate 10 Pro mobile used to control a driverless car during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Last week, Uber put the brakes on its self-driving car experiment in Arizona after the death of a pedestrian involving one of its vehicles.

The car-hailing app company had cancelled its autonomous car operations in March after the crash, which has sparked huge debate about the readiness and safety of driverless car technology.

Arizona’s governor, once a staunch backer of the vehicles, ordered Uber to stay off the road as outcry over the incident spread.

It is the latest in a long line of major incidents involving autonomous cars. The first recorded death involving a driverless vehicle was in July 2016 when a Tesla car failed to break when a tractor crossed its path.

A Growing, Global Industry

The industry has grown globally, with some of the biggest names in the motor business ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into driverless vehicles and a dystopian future. Google’s Waymo and China’s Baidu are developing the technology. But concerns about safety threaten to put the brakes on the much-hyped market.

The UK may not be known for its motor car prowess, but it is one market where the growth of the driverless sector is most evident.

The British are betting that they can leapfrog their bigger rivals in the race to autonomous cars, using their relaxed regulatory regime and home-grown technology.

Britain Is at The Forefront

The UK government has put technological innovation at the heart of its post-Brexit economic survival strategy, setting aside £250 million to develop and test autonomous cars in the country and has pledged £1 billion overall. It reckons driverless car tech will be worth £50 billion to the British economy by 2035.

Successful trials have already been completed on public roads. A project in Coventry involving major car-makers Jaguar Land Rover of the UK and Ford of the US tested the technology in real-life situations.

No collisions or unexpected incidents took place throughout the trials, though an experienced driver was ready to take control if required.

“This new technology is moving rapidly, and this is an important step and one we are all very excited about,” beamed city councillor Jim O’Boyle.

“Autonomous and connected cars will be a reality in the near future and I am confident they will help to boost safety, reduce congestion and improve air quality.”

Another project will attempt a complex journey across Britain, including country roads and high-speed roundabouts. The HumanDrive initiative will see a driverless car begin a 200-mile trek in December 2019.

‘A Global Revolution in Mobility’

British business and energy secretary, Greg Clark said: “Low-carbon and self-driving vehicles are the future and they are going to drive forward a global revolution in mobility.

“Trailblazing projects like the HumanDrive project will play a vital role helping us deliver on that ambition.”

The UK’s chancellor, Philip Hammond, promised driverless cars on the road by 2021. But the sector’s ascent is marred in controversy over safety, like it is all over the world following the Uber incident in Arizona.

The UK government said it will conduct a three-year review to consider the legislation required to let driverless cars roam British roads. It will include an assessment of whether the novel transport requires new criminal offences to be drawn up.

The key legal problem facing the industry is that the existing system of law governing roads starts with the presumption of human responsibility. Who is responsible for collisions involving a self-driving vehicle?

Regulatory Hurdles

British law will need to be amended to take into account cars without a human at the wheel. Issues to be examined include shared civil and criminal responsibility between humans and computers; how to protect road users from risk; the role of automated vehicles in public transport and car-sharing services such as Uber.

“Driving technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate,” said Jesse Norman, UK roads minister. “It is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain one of the world leaders in this field.”

But Britain faces further challenges on the road ahead to autonomous vehicles.

It’s testing lags far behind US states such as California, which has awarded nearly 50 trial permits to companies to test driverless cars on its roads. Testing is important to autonomous car developers because of the vast amount of experimentation needed for the vehicles to drive safely alongside other road users.

The other question for the UK is whether it has the talent needed to be the leader in the autonomous car race, even with relaxed regulation and government funding.

The SingularityHub, a Silicon Valley-based technology publication, analysed the six companies potentially leading globally in driverless car technology and none are from the UK. Five are in the US, including General Motors, Tesla and Uber.

Arguably the UK’s best-known leader in the industry is Oxbotica, a spinout from University of Oxford that focuses on the “deep learning” that enables cars to learn and improve their own driving over time.

Yet the company remains small when compared with its key US rivals and that means it will be difficult for it to compete on a global stage because it lacks the scale needed to test and improve its systems quickly enough.

A fatal collision involving an Uber autonomous car in Arizona may have put the brakes temporarily on the sector’s development. But for the time being, it looks like America will continue to dominate the space.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alvexo on the matter.