Self-driving or autonomous cars are high on the agenda for the motor industry. With trials taking place all across the globe, the race to perfect the technology is growing faster all the time. From long-haul trucks that just have a driver there to babysit, to taxis and food deliveries that go from A to B without any human input, the technology is developing at a rapid rate.

The UK is no exception. Testing has begun in earnest, with government grants and incentives in place to help make British carmakers one of the leaders in the autonomous race. Recent proposals could take the technology one step further – driverless motorways.

Life in the slow lane

Car manufacturers have been working on lane control and collision-avoidance technology for years now, with many new cars having this technology built in to their safety features. The confidence in this technology means that self-driving cars could be trusted to hit the motorways from the start of 2021.

Restricted to the slow lane and only allowed to travel up to 70mph (which is the speed limit anyway!), self-driving cars could be seen on the busiest roads in the country. Human operators will still be required to stand by in case of any sudden problems in the road, but it will be a big step forward for the technology.

There is one question that needs to be resolved. Who is responsible for the car in this situation? Is it the operator who will be required to sit behind the wheel of the car? Or is it the programmer, the person or company who has designed the car and set-up the technology. This legal responsibility is a big question that will have huge repercussions for the technology as a whole. If the responsibility lies with the driver, will they really want to be liable for a car that they had no control over? Or will the car manufacturer want to take on the insurance cost before the technology is perfected?

The human problem

Autonomous cars have been designed to remove the human element from driving. The idea is that a network of cars all communicating with each other will mean smooth driving with no traffic jams or accidents. Every car constantly talking to the other vehicles on the road, so you can be certain that you will get from A to B with no problem at all. Leaving you to just sit in your car and relax or work as you are transported to your destination with an extremely accurate arrival time. Sounds like a dream doesn’t it?

The removal of human reaction time from driving is one of the biggest factors, in terms of safety and efficiency. Just think about sitting at a traffic light. If you aren’t at the front of the queue, you aren’t waiting for the light turn to green. You’re waiting for the car in front to start moving. In an ideal world, every car would move at the same time as soon as the light turned green, keeping the same distance between each vehicle.

Onboard computers are also going to be able to detect danger a lot quicker than the human brain. Able to judge the speed of other vehicles all around it, monitor for hazards up ahead, and examine the conditions to understand the braking time and distance, when this technology is perfected and universal, there should be no more accidents on the road.

The technology problem

But, the technology is not perfect – yet. It’s going to be a conundrum for the manufacturers, scientists, and even the government. How do we get the technology to a level where it’s safe for everyone to use without testing it out in the public? There’s only so much testing and theory that can be completed in controlled conditions. You cannot accurately replicate other human drivers with a simulation. You just have to drive on any road for a few hours to see the sheer variety in competence of human drivers!

The liability issue is a massive one going forward. A self-driving car has to be perfect. It cannot make any mistakes on the road, no matter big or small. If it hits another car or causes an accident, then the technology has failed. The big question is whether the technology is at fault or the person ‘in control’ of the car. If it’s the former, then the amount of time it will take for the technology to be created and perfected will be much longer. No car maker is going to send a fleet of vehicles out on the road that are going to be potential insurance claims, from both the victim of the accident and also the owner of the car.

But if it’s the driver’s responsibility, is it really a self-driving car? If they have to be behind the wheel and ready to take over at a moment’s notice, then the car is not that autonomous after all. And if you have paid for a self-driving car, you aren’t going to expect any accidents to be caused by your vehicle.

The price problem?

Self-driving cars are going to be expensive when the technology is finally perfected. So for a long time, there will be very few of them on the road. Add to that those who cannot afford even the most modern cars, and the people who don’t want to drive autonomous vehicles, and you will have a real mixture of vehicles on the road.

Will this be a safe environment for autonomous vehicles? Or will it lead to more accidents as a mixture of technologies and qualities combine on the road. It could be that normal cars are phased out, slowly becoming a relic of the past. But until that happens, life on the road could be very different indeed.

If the technology works and is made affordable, then we can say goodbye to traffic jams and accidents. A future where we have to worry about keeping ourselves entertained on the road, rather than safe. Stress-free driving. A bright future for us all.