Discussions about how soon driverless cars could become a common sight on our roads continue to prompt the airing of many different theories including the prediction that within ten years there will be no drivers, no road accidents, and no injuries.
This may be an attractive prospect, but is it realistic? Judging by recent experiences of technology-leaders Google and Uber, probably not.
If Google does not expect driverless vehicles to come into contact with pedestrians then why, one wonders, have their designers developed a sticky bonnet in anticipation of catching unfortunate pedestrians?
And Uber’s recent driverless venture in its home town of San Francisco was not universally successful: amid stories of red-light jumping and near misses with cyclists and pedestrians, the hi-tech taxi company’s Californian driverless trials have been suspended, sharpish.
In the UK, expert evidence put before the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Select Committee in November suggested that driverless technology might one day look similar to aviation autopilot technology, and highlighted challenging issues still to be resolved such as driver training, alertness, and readiness to take over the controls at a moment’s notice. Anyone who has seen the movie Sully: Miracle on the Hudson will probably have an enduring impression of how quickly and decisively a pilot, or driver, might need to react to avoid a disaster that technology alone could not prevent.
But driverless matters are moving apace. Nissan anticipates autonomous, self-driving vehicle trials on London’s streets within weeks, although the car giant plans to put someone in the driver’s seat to react in case of emergency and has made provision for official observers to travel in the vehicles, while the Government’s modern transport bill, expected in early 2017, looks likely to set out a vision for autonomous, connected vehicles on our roads.
Why is all this important for road accident victims? Perhaps because it begs the question of who will be liable to pay out for death or injury caused by technological gremlins, or should an interface problem occur between man and machine. Happily the answer seems to be the insurance companies: the Association of British Insurers has confirmed its intention to compensate victims before conducting any necessary behind-the-scenes discussions to determine whether the manufacturer should contribute.
As personal injury lawyers we campaign for road safety; as citizens we are drivers, riders and pedestrians — and we all wish to avoid a sticky end.
Partner, personal injury department
LLP Solicitors of Chichester and Bognor Regis