Driverless vehicles are set to usher in a world in which empty cars collect you from a rain-soaked station, pick up the children from school, and wait to drive merry couples home from Sunday lunch in the pub.
But this probably won’t be an everyday reality for at least another decade or more, and that’s in developed countries. Other markets such as SA are likely to take even longer. Yet if and when driverless motoring does eventually become a mainstream reality, an interesting impact of the driverless car on families may be on the pocket, rather than on lifestyles.
At an industry event last week to show off the cutting-edge technology being knitted together to create the fully-fledged driverless car, debate centred on what the developments will mean for owners in terms of insurance and the law.
If a car is in an accident who or what is to blame if there is no driver at the wheel? The answer is that insurance will have to be modified to include a large element of product liability cover so that a claim can be made against the motor manufacturer rather than a driver if a fault leads to a crash.
Much cheaper insurance
David Williams, managing director of underwriting at insurer AXA, which is involved in the Venturer consortium, one of three Government-backed groups in the UK racing to get the technology on the road, says that in the long run car owners’ insurance should be cheaper – some believe as much as four-fifths less. He says: “Some 93 per cent of accidents on our roads are caused by human error and it is thought that driverless cars will reduce this number by 50 percent. If accident levels fall then so will premiums.”
Williams concedes that premiums could initially go higher since the cost of manufacturing these cars of the future – with technology that includes radar, lidar (laser sensory technology) and sophisticated software – will be high. He adds: “But the costs of sensor technology is coming down fast so prices of the vehicles will drop too.”
Prototypes of some of the space age cars were on display last week at an event hosted by Venturer to explain how these vehicles are likely to fit into everyday life.
Robot-driven taxi of the future
The Wildcat, from BAE Systems, is a standard looking four-wheel drive that has been ‘pimped up’ as driverless with radar and lidar, with a screen inside reminiscent of an aeroplane cockpit display.
Another offering, a more futuristic Ultra pod, conjures up the robot-driven taxi of science fiction film Total Recall. It will soon be tested on public roads to gauge people’s reaction to driverless technology and is the ultimate in letting you sit back and relax on a trip as there is no steering wheel to grab.
Similar electric pods are used at Heathrow Terminal 5 carrying drivers to and from the airport car park, but they run on a set route and are not totally autonomous.
Although several types of driverless car will be put through their paces on selected urban roads and motorways as the UK strives to be a leader in the technology, it may be 15 years until parents will be able to forgo the school run.
Williams Formula 1, also part of the Venturer consortium, presented onlookers with an autonomous driver simulator aimed at giving passengers some of the experience of ‘driving’ hands-free.
Passengers get a sense of the car effortlessly switching from lane to lane and dealing with everyday hazards such as an overtaking motorbike and a pedestrian, as well as the usual traffic lights and roundabouts. Like a theme park ride, though, it left this reporter a little queasy.
Other ways they’ll save money
With cars of the future programmed to stick to speed limits, drive perfectly without the gas-guzzling driving techniques of a boy racer and follow all the rules of the road, there are other potential financial attractions for car owners. Traffic infringements will be fewer and fuel consumption less – all good news for family budgets.
It may eventually even mean goodbye to driving lessons, tests and licences. And it could be liberating in other ways, allowing children, frail older folk or those suffering a driving phobia to enjoy the freedom of the open road.
But the driving test will not be redundant any time soon, experts say, as in the early years it is expected that cars will still need to have a competent driver with the ability to take manual control if the autonomous system fails.
Mail On Sunday