As a driverless future gets ever closer, technology companies and vehicle manufacturers alike are embracing the possibilities it offers.
But for lawmakers and regulators, the task ahead is a complex one. They must craft rules that not only protect road users, but are also flexible enough to cope with the different ways the driverless car industry might develop.
In the UK, a new survey that explores people's attitudes to driverless cars and road safety underlines the complexity of that task.
According to the poll, more than half of respondents (55%) would like traffic laws to be reviewed in line with the rise of self-driving cars. Just 10% believe that current road laws will suffice in a world where automated vehicles are commonplace.
The research, conducted by Venson Automotive Solutions, was launched to coincide with UK road charity Brake’s Road Safety Week 2016.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has previously estimated that driverless technology could help reduce serious road accidents by 25,000 a year by 2030, saving 2,500 lives annually.
However, more than half (53%) of those questioned in the survey thought the reduction would be closer to 10,000. Only 20% of respondents recognised the full safety potential of autonomous vehicles identified by the SMMT.
Simon Staton, Venson’s Director of Client Management, said: “It’s clear that many people aren’t aware of the positive impact autonomous vehicles are expected to have on road safety in the UK, despite the fact that 94% of road accidents are caused by human error.”
Roads operator Highways England believes that connected and autonomous vehicles could be the ‘breakthrough innovation’ needed to reduce accidents to close to zero by 2040, noted Staton.
However, he said, only 30% of respondents believed that this target was achievable, while 38% of those questioned predicted that injuries and fatalities would halve with the introduction of connected, self-driving vehicles.
Who will be liable in the event of a driverless car crash?
One particularly thorny topic for regulators and policy-makers is the question of liability in the event of a driverless car crash.
When asked who should be liable for a crash involving a driverless car, 22% of survey respondents opted for the remote vehicle operator, with only 12% believing the driver should be liable.
A further 44% said that liability should fall to a combination of the driver, the remote vehicle operator, the vehicle manufacturer and the driverless car’s software or hardware developer, according to Venson’s survey.
The company is supporting Brake’s Road Safety Week and seeking to raise awareness of the potential safety benefits offered by self-driving vehicles.
“The ‘Make the Brake Pledge’ urges drivers to minimise the risk of an accident by slowing down and avoiding distractions, such as mobile phones,” said Staton.
“However, automated vehicles equipped with a wide range of sensors won’t make those mistakes, which could see road accidents fall significantly, when this technology becomes mainstream.
“Until driverless cars become the norm on UK roads, Road Safety Week reminds everyone to focus on driving safely to lower the risk of accidents.”