Autonomous cars are coming. Actually, they’re already here – but you’re going to see a lot more of them on UK roads in the near future. The government wants fully self-driving cars on public roads by the end of 2021, and for this country to be a leader in developing such technology.
In other words, get ready to share the roads with an increasing number of autonomous cars being tested very soon. Does that make you nervous? Do you believe that self-driving cars are safe? Can we trust them? Do you want them sharing the same roads as you?
I ask such questions because encouraging greater engagement with the public over autonomous vehicle trials is a key part of updates made to the UK government’s Code of Practice for firms testing such machines on public roads. The government wants to make sure that anyone conducting autonomous car testing recognises the need to “educate the public regarding the potential benefits” of self-driving cars.
The idea is that talking to people more about autonomous vehicles can reduce some of the concerns about them, particularly in terms of safety. It’s probably a smart move, because there is evidence that self-driving cars aren’t being universally welcomed.
Google-owned Waymo has been testing cars in the US for several years, including extensive running in Chandler, Arizona. Late last year, the Arizona Republic newspaper obtained police documents detailing 21 incidents documented by Chandler police of Waymo autonomous vehicles, and their on-board test drivers, being harassed or threatened.
One machine had its tyres slashed while stopped in traffic. Another was threatened by a man brandishing a gun. The man involved in that incident was later charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct, and the police report of his arrest noted that he “stated that he despises and hates those [Waymo] cars.”
One Jeep Wrangler was reported trying to run Waymo vehicles off the road on several occasions, with its owner, Erik O’Polka, telling the New York Times: “There are other places they can test. They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake.”
Undoubtedly, these are isolated incidents: Waymo says its vehicles log more than 25,000 miles of autonomous running a day in Arizona. But they hint at an underlying mistrust of self-driving cars, perhaps linked to some of the high-profile incidents such machines have been involved with.
That includes the first recorded case of a pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg, dying after being struck by an autonomous vehicle, an Uber-run Volvo XC90 in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018.
That incident rightly prompted much talk about the safety of autonomous cars - even though police reports focus on human factors (the ‘back-up’ driver was distracted watching video on her phone; Herzberg was crossing an unlit road at night without paying attention; and Uber had disabled the XC90’s emergency braking system).
Make no mistake: it is vital that every lesson possible is taken from that incident and applied to make autonomous cars as safe as possible. But the same applies to any accident. And consider that in 2017 (the last year for which data is available), Tempe police recorded 8686 car accidents – including 24 fatal incidents – involving normal cars in the city.