Into the future: autonomous vehicles

Commercial Motor
October 15, 2018

In today’s society there is a constant push to develop more efficient and effective ways of doing business. The logistics and transport sector is no different and we have seen many innovative technologies being introduced, the most significant being automation.

For an industry that has always heavily invested in people to deliver seamless customer service and ensure road and vehicle safety, automated technology is a huge disrupter and one that is met with both suspicion and excitement. Automotive technology is used in many other industries such as manufacturing and warehousing with great economic benefits to industries.

For drivers, terminology like automated vehicles suggests they will have limited input in any driving, being able to sit back and wait to arrive at a destination. In reality it is likely to be a more blended approach, with the driver having ultimate control.

Insurance groups, while remaining open to new technology, advise against such terms, which give the impression that drivers can simply take their eyes off the road, which is unlikely to be satisfactory from an accountability perspective.

A group of 11 UK motor insurers, led by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Thatcham Research, has been formed to consider key issues relating to automated driving on UK roads, particularly concerning insurance and liability.

The Automated Driving Insurer Group will feed into ABI policy and work with the government on shaping the future of automated vehicle use in the UK. Automatic technology has already been introduced, with automated electronic braking (AEB) hugely popular, while other examples of automatic technology regularly seen are adaptive cruise control functions and automatic headlights and wipers.

At present, the use of automated vehicles does not fit in with the UK’s legislative regime. While new technologies are being trialled, the Law Commission is undertaking a joint project to identify what new legislation is required and how we can ensure that new technology does not result in an unsatisfactory system that fails to protect members of the public.

The main areas to be explored are:
. accountability - the extent of the driver or user’s responsibility - keeping eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, overriding the braking system and so on;
. allocation of criminal and civil responsibility;
. what new legislation is required to cover new situations; and
. how the risk to road users changes with the use of automated vehicles.

The Law Commission project will not address the separate issue of cyber security, but this is being explored by policy documents issued by the DfT. Vehicles essentially become part of IT and Wi-Fi networks, which would be as vulnerable to cyber attacks and system failures as any other system.

The policy document outlines the criteria that must be considered by any manufacturer to ensure that road users are as protected as possible. This includes accountability at board level, effective systems of maintenance, an ability to respond to failure and robust anti-hacking protection.

It will be fascinating to see how this changes the face of the transport industry and whether it is all or nothing, leaving those who fail to embrace this technology left behind. The industry surely cannot afford to ignore this revolution.

Truck platoon trials have taken place under controlled conditions on the continent with positive outcomes for some time and in August 2017, the government announced that the UK will see lorry platoon trials this year. Midlands Connect is one of the stakeholders looking to support the trial in the Midlands.

Our roads may need to be redesigned for wider access and to allow harmony with other traditional road users. While the technology isn’t too difficult to envisage, it is the ancillary questions that remain unanswered.

If one of the vehicles in a platoon breaks down, how easy is it to simply remove the vehicle and regroup? Another widely speculated issue is how the financial benefits are split through the group. The efficiency savings could differ according to a vehicle’s position in the platoon and a separate commercial arrangement either between the parties or administered by a third party may be necessary.

Ocado has opened a fully automated warehouse and DHL is looking to develop similar technology. When looking at the transport industry however, the issues are seemingly a lot more complex and are being explored through a number of government-funded trials and studies.

The UK has pledged £25m, to be matched by industry, to fund various projects via its Centre for Connected and Automated Vehicles, alongside manufacturers and technology companies. The investment would indicate that in some form, we will see automated technology in vehicles on our road in the next decade, although it is not clear what its extent will be.

It is claimed that the use of this technology has the potential to eliminate some of the 25,000 serious accidents on UK roads every year that are ordinarily attributed to human error.

By Laura Newton, associate solicitor at Rothera Sharp specialising in transport law.




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