Monday, 9 March 2015

Driverless cars: Who pays when people get killed?

Cute until it bites

The motoring industry is in a frenzy at the moment and for once it is not driven by the Top Gear crowd’s appetite for hypercars and horsepower. The car is on the tipping point of a new era that will put motoring one step closer to the imaginings of science fiction. The driverless car will soon be with us and with it comes the promise of freedom, comfort and safety. But anyone who has relied on technology, whether it be trusting their files to a cloud server or taking directions from navigator systems will know that tech will eventually let you down and when that happens people will get  hurt. And when that happens who will take responsibility.

Human error accounts for more than 80% of road traffic accidents and while this may depend on where you live or your age or social status the fact remains we are the cause of most injuries, deaths and material damage on our roads. According to WHO’s 2013 figures, around 1.24 million people die each year as a result of road traffic accidents.
Key facts
  • About 1.24 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes.
  • Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death among young people, aged 15–29 years.
  • 91% of the world's fatalities on the roads occur in low-income and middle-income countries, even though these countries have approximately half of the world's vehicles.
  • Half of those dying on the world’s roads are “vulnerable road users”: pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.
  • Without action, road traffic crashes are predicted to result in the deaths of around 1.9 million people annually by 2020.

So the reasoning is perfectly simple, remove us from the equation and we have safer roads for everyone. Removing key factors contributing to road deaths and injuries.

Speeding
Around 400 people a year are killed in crashes in which someone exceeds the speed limit or drives too fast for the conditions.

Drink Driving
Around 280 people die a year in crashes in which someone was over the legal drink drive limit.

Seat Belt Wearing
Around 300 lives each year could be saved if everyone always wore their seat belt.

Careless Driving
Around 300 deaths a year involve someone being "careless, reckless or in a hurry", and a further 125 involve "aggressive driving".

At-work
Around one third of fatal and serious road crashes involve someone who was at work.

Inexperience
More than 400 people are killed in crashes involving young car drivers aged 17 to 24 years, every year, including over 150 young drivers, 90 passengers and more than 170 other road users.

Failed to Look Properly
40% of road crashes involve someone who 'failed to look properly'.

Loss of Control
One third of fatal crashes involved 'loss of control' of a vehicle.

Failed to Judge Other Person's Path/Speed
One in five crashes involve a road user failing to judge another person's path or speed.
Above figures are from ROSPA so regard accidents in UK with a population around 64 million with one of the best road safety records in the world but are still representative of the major areas of human error. The implied promise of this technology is that by removing these factors thousands of lives will be saved, not to mention the millions in costs to the health service and material damages that are incurred in every shunt. But despite its almost qualified God complex, Google is fallible and fails us on a regular basis. When this happens and it will, will they be culpable for the loss of life, injury of damage.

A point raised by Jeremy Clarkson, only half-jokingly, on BBC’s Top Gear recently was that in the face of a complex ethical decision like which way to swerve, onto a mother with a pram or a to certain injury or death of the occupant. which will the computer choose. A human driver may succumb to instinct and err on side of self-preservation but the decision is made by an individual with accountability. The point is that there is a responsible party who could be judged culpable and face the consequences. When the same happens in car controlled by its internet connection.

Much has already been made of the privacy element of driverless cars. Google already knows more about us than our Mums they will now have the ability to track our movements in the real world. 

The question is, are legislators ready to hold them accountable when things go wrong? 


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