COMMENT: Driving without due care and attention, death by careless driving? The fellow behind the wheel isn’t even watching the road, which, I suppose, is the major attraction of driver-less vehicles.
Britain is pushing ahead with tests of self-driving cars on public roads despite mounting public concern over safety after a pedestrian was killed by one in the US.
The country’s biggest carmaker, Jaguar Land Rover, has been experimenting with autonomous cars on roads in the Midlands and is set to demonstrate more of the cars’ features, including an emergency braking warning system, on urban streets this week.
Government-backed trials using small autonomous vehicles in south London are due to end on Friday, with organisers reporting widespread public unease about the implications for road safety and cybersecurity.
A self-driving Uber car killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday night – the first time a self-driving vehicle has killed someone that was not its occupant. Elaine Herzberg, 49, was wheeling her bicycle when she was struck by the Volvo, and later died of her injuries in hospital.
Police in Arizona said initial video footage suggested Herzberg walked out suddenly. One previous death involving autonomous cars, a Tesla Model S owner killed in Florida in 2016 when his car crashed on autopilot, was blamed on the driver’s inattention, but investigators highlighted design flaws in the vehicle.
Many in the motor and insurance industries expect safety benefits from autonomous cars since more than 90% of accidents involve human error. In 2016, the latest full year for which data is available, 448 pedestrians were killed by vehicles on UK roads, and more than 6,000 in the US. But fears remain over how driverless cars will interact with humans on the roads.
Christian Wolmar, the author of Driverless Cars: a Road to Nowhere, said the Arizona accident would have a big impact: “We don’t know precisely what happened, but it is clear Uber are worried by withdrawing all their cars. Driverless cars will not be accepted if there is a perception that they are not 100% safe. Of course new technology has blips, but this one, that no one has particularly asked for, is being sold on the basis that it’s so much safer.”
In London, members of the public have been using low-speed autonomous pods on cycle paths and walkways around the Greenwich peninsula as the culmination of a three-year Gateway study into people’s responses to driverless technology.
Gateway said that under half of 1,300 public responses were positive about the new technology, with those uncertain or opposed citing cybersecurity and road safety fears. A spokesman said: “The lesson is you absolutely have to build in security and road safety from the get-go.”
The pods have had one reported collision, hitting a barrier with the roads minister, Jesse Norman, onboard. He has nonetheless pledged to keep the UK in the vanguard of developing autonomous technology, recently confirming an overhaul of road laws to include self-driving cars. Greenwich is expected to to allow Ford and Jaguar Land Rover autonomous cars on its streets in the next phase of testing.
Gatwick announced it would be testing autonomous vehicles to shuttle staff across the airfield, which it said could lead to “an Uber-like service” for ground staff to hail.