Road safety continues to challenge policymakers and regulators across the globe. Changes in regulation and public attitudes over time have undoubtedly made roads safer. The advent of driverless cars now presents an opportunity where some politicians whisper about a potential target of zero road deaths.
This doesn’t sound so far-fetched considering over 90% of RTAs are caused by driver error. Trusting computers and algorithms with completing millions of journeys each day, however, raises challenging legal and ethical questions.
Determining liability is the cornerstone of the motor insurance market. If an autonomous vehicle carrying a passenger crashes into another car, is the passenger responsible, even though they were not in control? A simple answer to this hypothetical question is that it would be the responsibility of the car manufacturer. But what if it turned out that the owner of the vehicle had failed to keep the tyres at the appropriate pressure or reneged on any other number of maintenance issues, would the driver be at fault then? The pressing question for policymakers and the insurance industry in particular is how to resolve these questions, and this requires a conversation between the public and car manufacturers.
Beyond ethics and issues over liability, putting a major piece of national infrastructure in the hands of computers is a potential cyber security risk. If hacking occurred on a widespread scale of an entire vehicle fleet, the damage could be unprecedented.
Driverless technology is, despite recent strides, still in development. Semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the roads and the path towards fully autonomous vehicles is still a number of years away. However, further hacking incidents involving car manufacturers could make consumers wary about the technology. Alongside the need to better protect against potential hacking, policymakers and the car industry must begin a dialogue with consumers about the ethical considerations around driverless cars. Otherwise, it will not be clear which road we are travelling on.