+ Autonomous vehicles promise safe and convenient independent mobility but what is science fact and what is science fiction?

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being touted as the next evolution of private and independent mobility. With the right application of technology, it’s said, they are virtually foolproof. But I wonder if the grass will be as green as some think?

I raise three issues here for thought. They focus specifically on private mobility applications, although some concerns are transferrable to public operations.

The first downside is liability. According to Lloyd’s of London, this is one of the biggest challenges for AV deployment. Today, the onus is typically on the traveller to use transport infrastructure safely. With any crash, excepting where there are genuine extenuating circumstances, fault is attributed to one or more of the parties involved. AVs may be safer, statistically, but I foresee two future events.

The first is when a crash occurs involving an AV and a conventional vehicle, and the human driver disputes that they are at fault. The second is when an AV crashes without the involvement of a conventional vehicle. Who assumes liability? The user? The manufacturer? The government? What evidence will demonstrate culpability? A new body of legislation is required to regulate deployment of AVs and address these issues.

The second downside is the risk of failure. A grain of sand in a grandfather clock can cause the clock to stop or operate in a manner that was never intended.  Imagine the prophetic grain of sand in an AV network. The risks range from activation of a fail-safe or some minor inconvenience to system-wide mayhem. This could leave a generation of people who have never needed to transport themselves unable to get around.

Lastly, we need to think about the ‘adoption continuum’. Do the early adopters become guinea pigs? How reliable will the networks be that support their travels? What about those who cannot afford to adopt the technology, even in the longer term and assuming there are at least some public mobility applications? There is a risk that human-driven vehicles will become obsolete or at least undesirable and perhaps not accommodated in systems design. We may be facing a new era of mobility poverty. 

We’ve not seen the last of the debate. The potential may be huge but I want to see AVs talked about as a part of the emerging mobility mix, not the mobility panacea that some of the hype suggests.