People entering RPC building.

Letting Go Of The Wheel

28 May 2015. Published by Emma Kislingbury, Senior Associate

If you are someone who finds yourself regularly gripping the car steering wheel in frustration or mouthing obscenities at your fellow road users in a frenzied rage, then you may have welcomed the recent launch of the UK trials for driverless cars.

The government is providing £19m to launch four driverless car schemes, with the intention that the UK will lead the way in driverless technology - meaning that you will be able to sit back, relax and take your hands off the steering wheel.

Endorsing the possibilities this opportunity creates, Claire Perry, the Minister for Transport, has said: "Driverless vehicle technology has the potential to be a real game-change on the UK's roads, altering the face of motoring in the most fundamental of ways and delivering major benefits for road safety, social inclusion, emissions and congestion".

But what are some of the challenges that may arise as driverless technology develops?  

Driverless cars pose significant questions in terms of responsibility. In the event of a crash for example, who is responsible, and how would the cause be determined? While current motor policies are focussed on the driver, it is most likely that with driverless technology, the car manufacturer will be responsible for the product's safety - and, in the event of car malfunction, it will be a product liability issue, requiring advanced software to analyse a car's own automated system. It has been predicted by some in the motor insurance industry, that driverless technology will signal the end of traditional motor insurance and products will need to evolve significantly to respond to the changing needs of the market.

On top of this (and what I think is possibly the biggest challenge), is the cultural shift this technology demands. I rather enjoy driving, and whereas, apparently, many people associate driving with stress, I actually find it quite relaxing (whether those lucky enough to be in a car with me whilst I'm driving share that sentiment is another matter), but in any event, I can't say I feel overly enthused about giving up the driving seat. Undoubtedly there are potential benefits, not least the increased independence that automated cars can offer to those who are unable to drive, as well as the removal of human error and resulting decrease in accident rates, but nevertheless I can't help but feel that there will remain a significant number of us who are loath to give up driving our own vehicles.

For the moment I can rest assured, as it is likely to be some time before automated cars are a normal sight on our roads. It is not purely a matter of getting the technology right, but also the regulation, and the government has promised a full review of current legislation by summer 2017, involving a rewrite of the Highway Code and adjustments to MOT test guidelines.

Reservations also remain in relation to the safety and security issues that driverless technology presents. Will Rockall, director at KPMG's cyber-security practice, has emphasised the importance of understanding the security issues from the outset and ensuring adequate protection is embedded at an early stage:

"…designers need to ensure that new technologies are robust … As increased automation is introduced the threat of hacking and cyber-attacks will become more real as the control of vehicles and routing is removed from human beings."

 The additional software that driverless cars require, which will inevitably be connected to the vehicle's key systems, including steering and brakes, will, as explained by Jeff Williams, CTO and founder of Contrast Security, result in a considerable attack surface. As Jeff puts it, and I wholeheartedly agree: "…surely someone will find a way to hack it. I just hope it’s a responsible security researcher and not a malicious psychopath." I think for the moment I will be keeping both hands quite firmly on the steering wheel.

Emma Kislingbury