Driverless cars. The latest in disruptive technologies which have the potential to wreak deep economic, legal and social change.
Naturally this evolution in technology has sparked an abundance of champions and cynics, each debating the benefits and pitfalls of whether these vehicles could justifiably be introduced onto our roads. It only takes a short recap of history to see that it's probably inevitable.
Steam drove the decline of European canals and the countless thousands working on running and maintaining them. In its turn the railways were overtaken by the point to point autonomy offered by the internal combustion engine.
Now the prospect of driverless vehicles looks to extend the transport revolution further still. There will, as ever, be winners and losers - fortunes made and lost - jobs created and redundancies aplenty.
And as ever these changes will have wide social consequences.
One of the likely great advantages will be a considerable drop in motor accidents and injuries. Machines will bring reliable and fail safe decision making. The sensors and controls, the ability to interact and draw information from other vehicles and the environment, crunching of high volumes of data quickly, reliably and without tiring, should mean that the age of autonomous vehicles is one where few of us fall victim to our love affair with mobility.
Evidently, for the legal profession, claims handlers, claims referral agencies and medicolegal experts, these changes would be potentially profound. The huge industry that surrounds the contest over compensation between those injured (and many uninjured fraudsters) and the insurance industry could all but disappear.
But let's be realistic. Technology is known to fail on occasion.
It wasn't me, it was the car...
We may move into a world where consistency of computing makes accidents few and far between, but no matter how occasional, they will happen. At present, liability in road accidents is shared out by deciding whether it was the driver and/or the injured party who had failed to exercise reasonable care. Such a negligence test seems unsuitable for roads where most vehicles are being driven by computer, so it makes sense that the UK government has recently announced that it will be reviewing the appropriate legal framework for liability in relation to driverless vehicles.
It will be hard to suggest that the driver or owner of the vehicle has been negligent if they have been relying on the programming or sensors of the vehicle. So at the risk of tempting fate I would expect the government to go for 'no fault' liability (so-called strict liability). This would see an injured person able to claim compensation from the owner of a vehicle which caused the injury provided the injured person themselves hadn't caused the collision.
This approach would have the advantage of much simpler court process or dispute resolution and will allow, as now, the primary burden of cost for accidents to be born by insurance. It might of course lead to satellite litigation between insurers and car manufacturers where vehicle design or manufacturing faults can be identified.
Goodbye to high insurance premiums
Considerably lower accident rates and lower average speeds should lead to considerably lower insurance premiums. The reduced risk could be expected to lead to narrower margins and potential significant consolidation in the vehicle insurance market.
In the UK lower insurance premiums would lead to significantly lower tax take via insurance premium tax but fewer injuries should lead to offsetting savings from the direction of the National Health Service.
Conceivably vehicle theft rates should also drop dramatically since vehicles should be easy to track and might even be instructed to return home! Perhaps we will see more vehicles stolen by being lifted into trucks for breaking up and less whole vehicle theft?
Life as a passenger
Drink-driving should become a thing of the past, and self driving cars will no doubt have a radical effect on the level of employment provided by the taxi industry. One can readily see that driverless cars married up with cashless payment systems could easily decimate the jobs of cabbies.
The likely traffic/vehicle information exchange systems also offer greater opportunities to work and teleconference or consume streamed content on the move. It is conceivable that driverless vehicles could offer a more attractive working-while-travelling environment than trains or even planes over medium distance (say 200 miles).
Of course one of the big challenges of computer-controlled vehicles will be keeping the prying eyes of the state out of the equation. Vehicles calling on roadside infrastructure for information or exchanging it for traffic management reasons could offer law enforcement and internal security services an evidential bonanza.
Already in the UK it is doubtful whether the citizen enjoys adequate protection from either law enforcement or the spooks under RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act). Despite the handwringing of the liberal minded, it seems unlikely that the UK state will be able to resist tapping vehicle management infrastructure and links to vehicles for information, positional and even covert listening. The recent privacy question marks surrounding smart televisions seems likely to have an echo in the electronics of interconnected vehicles.
But not just yet...
The realisation of much of this of course lies in the future. But the ongoing programs of road tests and the 'march of the computers' tells me that it will all be up and running by the end of the decade.