THE BLOG

Would You Take a Ride in a Driverless Car?

29/01/2015 15:18 GMT | Updated 29/03/2015 10:59 BST

Would you take a ride in a driverless car? I would and it looks like around half of the UK would join me too (according to a recent survey).

Everything is getting smarter - including our cities and intelligent transport systems, which include driverless cars, are one of the cornerstones of the smart cities that governments around the world are aiming to build. It's no wonder then that major car manufacturers are investing millions in research and development - the race is on to produce the first commercially viable driverless car.

However, before we all belt up, turn on the engine and relax, it's worth considering why we might need driverless cars at all. In my opinion, the benefits are huge. Firstly, driverless cars speak directly to my wallet - offering cost savings not just for the insurance companies as a result of fewer accidents, but to the everyday motorist. So-called 'robo cars' are safer - for motorists and pedestrians, they use less fuel, roads will be less congested (music to the ears for those prone to road rage) and disabled and elderly people will be able to use driverless cars to get around more easily.

Of course, where there are benefits there are also barriers. As a lawyer I can see the regulatory framework is not fit for purpose. It's no surprise that the law can lag behind technology and its many, rapid advancements - realistic data protection rules only appeared once we had shared most of our data online. Driverless cars look set to continue this theme. The fact that these cars operate in such an intelligent way with a reliance on data will inevitably raise questions for us all - what happens if someone hacks my car's data - will they be able to track my movements, or even take control of my journey?

From a legal perspective, this data stored by the car will be subject to existing data protection rules for the time being, but there will be concerns about the ability of intelligence agencies or even the police to access data. The developers of driverless cars are under a great deal of pressure to ensure that systems are completely secure. A hacked car would have the potential to cause massive damage, so no country is going allow cars to be sold on the open market unless adequate safeguards are in place.

Another question in the minds of many is what happens if you are injured or killed by a driverless car? Liability is a huge question, particularly during the public trial phase, and one that insurance companies and others are working hard to resolve. During the trial phase, where cars will have no operator on board normal rules of the road will apply. If a driverless car hits you the company carrying out the trial will be responsible, if you hit it you'll be liable.

Finally, and probably the most important question is who is deemed to be in charge of a driverless car - the programmer, the manufacturer, the infrastructure provider or the occupant? Recent reports suggest that the UK government is planning to place the responsibility for safe operation of a so-called driverless car firmly on the motorist but there's currently no agreement internationally as to what represents the different levels of automation likely to be found in such vehicles. Effectively, that means the person in charge must be qualified to drive and able to take control of the vehicle if needed. That rules out a cheap ride home from the pub after a few drinks, or the possibility of not having to take a driving test.

Driverless cars still seem to many as something straight out of Back to the Future. But with trials beginning on roads in four major UK cities later this year, we'll see driverless cars on our roads sooner than we think. For me, the real challenge standing in the way of futuristic and hopefully stress-free motoring is the lack of legal clarity and outdated regulation.

Ultimately, it is in all our interests that fit-for-purpose laws are developed alongside driverless car technology. Only then can we look forward to a future of completely stress-free motoring.