Earlier this month, Formula E's Buenos Aires ePrix event played host to a world-first: a race between two self-driving cars. The vehicles, which are destined, one day, to compete in the Roborace series, hurtled around the track at 115 miles per hour, but there was a slight problem – one of the cars crashed.
For autonomous car naysayers and technophobes, the incident was proof that the widespread adoption of self-driving cars is some way off yet. For fans of the technology, however, it was simply a blip; the kind of teething problems that you expect with any new technology. And what’s more, crashes are an unfortunate, but entirely expected, part of racing.
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Even taking into account the Roborace crash and the other incidents that have disrupted the testing of self-driving cars, the industry still holds a great deal of promise. If the technology can develop quickly enough, we could see a world where accidents are a thing of the past. Where human error on the roads is a mere memory. Where individuals suffering from long-term disability can gain greater independence.
In addition, it’s important to put any high-profile setbacks into context. Self-driving cars are undergoing rigorous testing – Google’s autonomous vehicle has already covered more than 2 million miles. Although it is the accidents that make the headlines (not the miles of safe driving) they are few and far between and often result in no injuries – as was the case in the Formula E race.
One of the main challenges that has to be overcome is the fact that the entire automotive industry, with its decades of history, would have to change substantially to accommodate self-driving cars. Already we are seeing traditional car manufacturers becoming more interested in software development in order to make the transition that would be required by the adoption of autonomous cars. Self-driving vehicles would also, in all likelihood, have some form of wireless connectivity to send data back to the manufacturer. This connectivity, however, also introduces risk – what happens in the event of a computer hack or malware?
Moreover, who is ultimately responsible if a self-driving car is involved in an accident? Car accident lawyers Mark K. Gray and Matthew L. White cite driver distraction, aggression, inexperience and similar causes for the majority of accidents. In a driverless world, who is to blame and how would insurance claims be handled?
Another challenge facing self-driving cars is the simple fact that humans are perhaps not quite ready to embrace this technology, even if it could offer stronger safety guarantees. For many, driving is an enjoyable experience and not one that they would be willing to give up without a fight. Comments made two years ago by Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggesting that self-driving cars could eventually see human driving made illegal won’t have helped matters.
So at the moment, it’s too early to say when autonomous vehicles will be packing our motorways and side streets. It is surely inevitable, however, that self-driving cars will one day lead to safer roads for all of us.