Driverless cars – the future?

In November last year, Chancellor Phillip Hammond told the BBC that ‘the objective was to have “fully driverless cars” without a safety attendant on board in use by 2021’[1] in an effort for the UK to become a leader in this emerging industry.

Driverless Cars, Safer?

Driverless cars or autonomous cars, are those which can travel to a destination without the need for a human operator.[2] The idea is that the driver can set the destination, the car calculates a route and then sets off on its way. To help prevent any collisions these cars will be fitted with various sensors to detect the car’s surroundings and then react in the safest way possible. Using these sensors alongside the inbuilt computer system will allow the car to factor in any changes in traffic activity and will be able to change the route to a more convenient one. A manual override will also be available in the event that someone needs to take control of the car.

Already being Developed

Companies, such as BMW, Ford and Google, are already developing and testing driverless cars and in November, the government promised reforms aimed at encouraging the industry which could be worth £28 billion to the UK economy by 2035.[3] With human error being one of the biggest causes of road traffic accidents,[4] autonomous vehicles purport to reduce the number of accidents that occur on our roads by removing the human element.

On the Roads by 2021

Introducing driverless cars on to UK roads by 2021 may be considered to be an innovative step by the government to get in at the ground floor with one of the biggest technological advancements of the 21st century, but there are those who would say that this goal is unrealistic. AXA’s UK boss, Amanda Blanc, argues that we simply don’t have the infrastructure at this time to support electric driverless cars by 2021.[5] She calls on personal experience in claiming that there is a lack of rapid charging bays which allow an 80% charge in just 30 minutes.[6] Out of 14,000 charging bays in the UK, only 2,620 of them are rapid chargers. Investment in these charging bays will be required if we are to see electric driverless cars on our roads by 2021.

Power Drain

Another issue that Amanda Blanc identifies is the strain that the growth in electric cars (driverless or not) will place on the National Grid. The National Grid claim that a spike in the number of plug-in cars could lead to peak electricity demand exceeding the capacity of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station by as little as 2030.[7] To combat this, alternative sources of power may need to be explored in order to cope with growing demand and smart charging of these vehicles needs to be encouraged, whereby people charge the vehicles at off-peak times.

Will Learning to Drive Change

There are other implications of driverless cars, for instance, the necessities of insurance and learning to drive. With the introduction of driverless cars in the near future, driving lessons as we know them may be changed completely. A separate test may be required, or it may come in addition to the current practical test. Further, if it is to be believed that driverless cars will eliminate accidents occurring, then car insurance could change dramatically, and could even lead to it becoming non-existent further down the line.

Getting Comfortable with the idea

Despite the efforts of the government in trying to promote development in this area, one major hurdle that they may have to overcome is engaging people with the idea of an autonomous car. A study by the London School of Economics shows that 55% of drivers would be uncomfortable driving alongside an autonomous car.[8] On the other hand, only 28% would feel comfortable driving alongside one and 25% would feel comfortable using one.

Not only does there seem to be an uncomfortable feeling surrounding these forms of transport, but also a general distrust. The study indicates that 64% of drivers surveyed felt that there needs to be a human driver in control, and 85% believed that “autonomous vehicles could malfunction”.[9] There may also be some concerns over the vulnerability of these cars to hacking.[10] This will be a major stepping stone that the government will have to get over if it wants driverless cars on the roads by 2021.

Who’s to Blame if there’s an Accident?

Such a monumental change to transport could also come with legal implications, with a need to amend or rewrite particular legislation, including many provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1988. Certainly, one question to ask is what happens when there is an accident? Who is held responsible? Is it the manufacturer, operator, or other drivers who are at fault?[11] These are among many questions that the Law Commission will be considering in relation to current and future legislation. Regardless of the volume of legislation they propose to review this year, they aim to ‘promote public confidence in the safe use of automated vehicles, and to ensure the UK has a vibrant, world-leading connected and automated vehicles industry.’[12]

Infrastructure, public opinion, and the laws surrounding road traffic, are just some of the things that we could see changing over the next few years. But perhaps the biggest barrier the government may have to overcome is inspiring faith and confidence in road users over this new technology. As possibly one of the most important technological advancements of the 21st century, the government will need to get people on board with the idea of driverless cars if they ever want the UK to become a leader in this up-and-coming industry. Despite the many presupposed faults of driverless cars, we can’t know what will happen until we are faced with the possibility. With driver error or reaction being the leading contributory factor in road traffic accidents, removing the primary cause of these accidents can’t possibly be a bad thing when attempting to reduce the number of casualties that occur on our roads.

[1] BBC News, ‘Hammond: Driverless cars will be on UK roads by 2021’ (Published 19th November 2017) <>

[2], ‘Driverless car’ (Updated September 2011) <>

[3] BBC News, ‘Driverless cars on UK roads by 2021 – really?’ (Published 20th November 2017) <>

[4] Department for Transport, Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2016 Annual Report (Table RAS50001, Published 28th September 2017) <>

[5] The Guardian, ‘Are we really ready for self-driving cars?’ (Published 3rd January 2018) <>

[6] The Guardian, ‘UK lacks infrastructure for self-driving cars, says Axa’ (Published 31st December 2017) <>

[7] The Guardian, ‘Electric cars will fuel huge demand for power, says National Grid’ (Published 13th July 2017) <>

[8] The London School of Economics and Political Science, ‘Are UK drivers ready to give up the wheel?’ (Published 12th October 2016) <>

[9] The London School of Economics and Political Science, ‘Are UK drivers ready to give up the wheel?’ (Published 12th October 2016) <>

[10] The Times, ‘Driverless car? Not for me thanks, say most motorists’ (Published 1st January 2018) <>

[11] The Guardian, ‘Laws for safe use of driverless cars to be ready by 2021’ (Published 14th December 2017) <>

[12] The Law Commission, Thirteenth Programme of Law Reform (Law Com No 377, Published 14th December 2017) <>