Driverless cars get UK green light, but would you trust them?

Driverless car

Soon driverless cars arrive on British roads, introducing a range of technical, legal and moral quandaries

LAST UPDATED AT 14:40 ON Thu 31 Jul 2014

The age of driverless cars is a step closer after the UK government announced that testing could begin on public roads as early as January next year.

Ministers invited British cities to bid for the right to host one of three trials of driverless vehicles, each of which would run for 18 to 36 months.

The move puts Britain at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing, which, according to Business Secretary Vince Cable, will provide a raft of new economic opportunities for British businesses.

What are driverless cars?

Driverless cars are classed as vehicles that take on the tasks of steering, accelerating and braking between two points with a minimum of input from a human operator. A variety of autonomous technologies, such as parking assistance, cruise-control and anti-lane drift already exist, but new research from automotive and technological companies around the world is driving the development of cars that can take on more of the tasks of everyday driving.

How do they work?

Driverless cars use a range of different technologies, including Lidar (light detection and ranging), which helps a vehicle position itself in relation to other objects by bouncing lasers off reflective surfaces; "computer vision", which, according to the BBC helps "make sense of 360-degree images"; and global-positioning system (GPS) data from satellites. Together, the technologies allow driverless cars to avoid inanimate objects, evade other vehicles and pedestrians, obey road rules, and respond correctly to road features such as traffic lights and roundabouts.

Which other countries are testing driverless cars?

The US has approved testing of driverless cars in California, Nevada and Florida. Japan ran tests of its own last year on a public highway. In Europe, Gothenburg has been given approval to begin tests in 2017.

Which companies are working on autonomous vehicles?

Currently, Google is working on driverless cars in the United States. Up until recently the tech company was putting its self-driving technology into other manufacturers' vehicles, such as BMW and Audi, but in May, Google announced that it would begin producing cars of its own. According to the BBC, Chinese search firm, Baidu, also recently announced that it had a driverless car in the "early stage of development".

How will UK laws need to be adapted?

Laws and regulations will need to be changed to allow for driverless vehicles, including the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, which in 1968 stated: "Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals."

An amendment in May stated that driverless cars would be allowed so long as they "can be overridden or switched off by the driver", the Daily Mail reports. The convention is applied in countries across Europe, plus Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Russia.

The UK department for transport has been given until the end of the year to update road laws to govern autonomous vehicles. The rules will be adapted to cover both how road rules apply when a driver can override automatic controls and those where there is no driver at all, the BBC reports.

Earlier this month, the FBI warned that autonomous vehicles could potentially be used as weapons, predicting that they "will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car". · 

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