Autonomous vehicles are coming to a road near you – and sooner than you might expect.
The debate around their arrival is so far largely the same: will autonomous vehicles, also known as AVs, improve road safety and reduce the number of casualties?
But there’s another protection element often overlooked during discussions around driverless vehicles – personal safety.
If self-driving cars are almost upon us, what can this tech do keep us safe from other humans?
Waymo self-driving cars are already operating in San Francisco and Phoenix and will soon be landing in Los Angeles and Austin
When will autonomous vehicles come to our roads?
The autonomous vehicle market is growing rapidly.
Globally, it’s already valued at $54billion and predicted to grow tenfold in the next seven years, according to Allied Market Research.
There are six levels of autonomy to driver-assisted technology – a combination of highly complex artificial intelligence (AI) software, LiDar and RADAR sensing technology.
There are six levels vehicle automation. In the UK, Ford’s BlueCruise is the only designated Level 2 system, meaning drivers can take their hands off the wheel while it’s activated
In the US, level 4 autonomous vehicles are already in use. The UK Government says it wants self-driving vehicles on our roads by 2026
Currently, in Britain we have one driverless system that meets level 2 autonomy – Ford’s BlueCruise feature equipped in the Mach-E electric SUV.
However, level 4 self-driving cars are already operating in the US.
Alphabet-owned ride hailing firm Waymo has driverless cars you hail via an app in San Francisco and Phoenix (with Los Angeles and Austin coming soon).
At the end of 2023, Transport Secretary Mark Harper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to expect self-driving cars ‘by as early as 2026.’
The King’s Speech in November also included the government’s new Automated Vehicles Bill centred around safety and innovation, followed the same month by the announced government investment of £150million for Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM), to be matched by a further £150m from industry.
In short, AVs could be arriving on these shores in the not too distant future.
Autonomous vehicles and road safety
The human error of driving versus the technical error of self-driving cars: that’s the crux of the safety argument today.
One person dies or is seriously injured every 16 minutes on UK roads. The Department of Transport reported an 8.7 per cent increase in road deaths in the UK from 2022 to 2023.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that human error accounts for 94 per cent to 96 per cent of all car accidents.
But that doesn’t stop 75 per cent of all UK residents holding a driving licence, mainly because driving is a necessity for most.
The introduction of self-driving cars aims to remove human error from driving and making roads safer.
Waymo and another autonomous driving company Cruise both reported self-driving cars are involved in fewer crashes than human-driven ride-hailing vehicles.
Cruise, in conjunction with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), analysed 5.6million miles of ride hail-driven data as a benchmark against which to compare AVs. Cruise found its vehicles were involved in 65 per cent fewer collisions overall.
Michelle Breffitt, Co-founder of Women Drive Electric, believes the conversation around autonomous EV tech is extremely exciting
Waymo also found that comparative to human-driven mile benchmarks, a Waymo car over more than seven million miles had an 85 per cent reduction in injury-causing crash rates and a 57 per cent reduction in police-reported crash rates.
A 2017 study from RAND Corporation found that in the long-term deploying cars that are just 10 per cent safer than the average human driver will save more lives than waiting until they are 75 per cent or 90 per cent better.
Reports like this do little to quash the bad press that happens when something goes wrong, though.
When a Cruise self-driving cars hit a pedestrian in San Francisco in October 2023, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) suspended Cruise’s operations (expect testing operations that have a safety driver present).
Comparatively the number of pedestrian deaths in the UK alone as a result of a road incident was 376 (15 more than 2021), so the DMS’s response might seem disproportionate to some.
But the unnatural aspect of self-driving and the increasing role of machines is a juggling act for the industry, something Michelle Breffitt, Co-founder of Women Drive Electric Facebook Group, understands only too well.
‘The conversation around autonomous EV tech is extremely exciting as it could impact almost every aspect of our lives,’ she explained.
‘I can understand why this futurist step could feel precarious in sliding towards a rise of the machines, allowing them to think for us rather than just ‘do’ for us, but autonomous EV tech has already been warmly welcomed into our driving habits with the likes of autopilot and accident detection warnings.’
While autonomous tech is becoming more commonplace, totally autonomous vehicles are still in infancy so the response by authorities to issues is severe.
This hasn’t deterred Waymo though, which opened 2024 by announcing its self-driving cars will start drive on Phoenix freeways (something its previously avoided).
Experiencing a self-driving Waymo – does it feel safe?
Abhishek Sampat, head of EVs at BCA and former research and technology innovation manager at Jaguar Land Rover, just got back from San Francisco and couldn’t stop raving about his first Waymo experience.
‘I observed Waymo vehicles navigating the streets from other cars, and it was clear they knew the rules of the road and were very safe,’ she said.
‘Then I got in one!
‘The first 30 seconds feels eerie. You watch the steering wheel move by itself and it looks alien. But the screen in the car shows you what path its taking, what it’s detecting on the road and your ETA.
‘After that first 30 seconds though, it’s fine – it feels natural! And trust was built almost instantly.’
An additional benefit Sampat noted was that you don’t feel on edge about someone else’s driving.
In 2019 a YouGov poll found two-thirds of car passengers have felt uncomfortable about the speed at which they were driven and three in 10 said they would be uncomfortable telling the driver to slow down.
There’s no issue with this if the car is autonomous.
‘There’s no need to worry about how distracted, tired or capable the person driving the car is’ Sampat said.
Breffitt agrees saying: ‘the possibilities are mind boggling when you really think about it. Imagine if we could jump into a vehicle at the end of a night out without the risk of a drunk driver ruining another family’s life.’
A Waymo means you never have to get into a car with a stranger, something that’s drilled into kids as the ultimate safety rule to follow
How autonomous ride hailing can improve personal safety
‘Never get into a car with a stranger,’ is drummed into every child as the ultimate safety rule to follow.
Yet, in technologically advanced modern life, today ordering a stranger-driven Uber to drop you to your home address is considered the safest way to get home.
Though ride hailing is no stranger to safety controversy.
Uber lost its licence to operate in London in 2017 and 2019 due to failures in reporting criminal offences, issuing driver background checks and using unauthorised or uninsured drivers.
Uber added a number of safety features in recent years including an in-app panic button, but personal safety problems are still making headlines.
In October 2023 a panel of judges in the US ruled that over 80 cases of sexual assault filed against Uber can be joined together in federal court.
A mother the CPUC she had been turned away by taxi drivers because of her children’s car seats – something that wouldn’t happen with a self-driving car
Autonomous ride hailing could change this soon. In fact, Uber is now a partner of Waymo.
Driverless 24/7 safety is one of the reasons the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted in favour of allowing Waymo and Cruise to run a 24-hour service.
During the six hours officials listened to public comment one of the most convincing pro arguments was made by blind Jessie Wolinksy: she said Uber and Lyft drivers have made unwanted advances towards her and she has never felt such a high sense of safety thanks to Waymo cars.
A mother also told the Commission that she had been turned away by taxi drivers because of her children’s car seats – something that wouldn’t happen with a self-driving car.
With Volvo’s autonomous driving tech you could catch up on work or read the paper on the go
How autonomous tech can improve personal safety and transform the lives of vulnerable people
Teague, a think tank dedicated to the future of mobility, cites remote technology-enhanced safety supervision as an advanced way to protect people’s personal safety.
Sensing technology inside the car can monitor for, and respond to, potentially dangerous situations as they evolve.
Teague gives the example of ‘a system that could detect sounds of conflict or hostile language through the in-vehicle conversational interface and alert emergency assistants to carry out appropriate intervention’.
The think tank’s recent collaboration with Intel experimented with safe exit strategies for uncomfortable or dangerous situations including acts of violence.
By using their mobile phone to discreetly select a verified safe space drop off location, a passenger could avoid ending their trip in front of their home if they felt threatened by a fellow passenger or companion.
Teague says other AI technology could include a verbal command such as a safe word or phrase to reroute their vehicle to the nearest police station.
Profile information and sensing technologies in AVs could identify passenger’s individual needs to help improve safety and accessibility.
Waymo partnered with RideChoice to provide ‘safe, convenient travel solutions’ for elderly or disabled people
The Federal Transit Administration showed AVs provided a ‘safe, convenient travel solution’ for elderly or disabled people.
A vehicle could know to stop for longer when it’s dropping off a physically challenged passenger and notify a contact of choice for assistance upon arrival.
Waymo partnered with Valley Metro RideChoice in Phoenix to provide robotaxis to senior and disabled inhabitants, with the result that riders reported they were ‘engaged more in activities outside of their home’, Valley Metro and ASU found.
93 per cent of participants wanted autonomously driven rides become an ongoing RideChoice option.
James Reeve, Owner of Disability Motoring Website, MotaClarity says: ‘The lives of people who have certain disabilities and mobility issues could be transformed once affordable cars with self-driving technology start rolling off production lines.
‘Many who can’t currently drive will be able to take to the road and discover a new sense of freedom and independence.’
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