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Driverless cars: The future of travel or trouble in the making? Part 2

Welcome back to our two-part series on driverless cars. In our last article, we outlined the current market and the technology behind these vehicles.

Now, let’s investigate how this all affects Australia.

Driverless cars in Australia specifically

It may seem like an evolution of technology happening in far-off places, but there are already vehicles here in Australia that require no driver.

SBS reports that trials have already begun in South Australia. The Volvo XC90 was the first car of its type to be trialled in our country, as a part of the Australian Driverless Cars Initiative, led by ARRB Group.

“It’s interesting how quickly you get used to the car driving itself,” said SA Premiere Jay Weatherill after his own trip in the vehicle.

One of the aspects Mr Weatherill was most interested in is safety, something that managing director of ARRB Gerard Waldron was confident driverless vehicles can help.

“These cars will keep the car between the white lines,” he said.

“They’ll be alert and diligent beyond humans. And they won’t panic – they’ll just do the best they can with the data they’ve got.”

The Tesla model S was also tested in New South Wales, and our state government is planning on pushing for them to get rolled out further in the next few years.

What problems have manufacturers encounters so far?

But if we’re talking about safety, we should mention where these cars have had issues in their trials thus far.

Ironically, one of the leading causes of trial failure – or at least hiccups – has been human error. In September 2015, states the New York Times, a Google vehicle was rear-ended by a fellow driver when it stopped at a crossing to allow someone to walk. In an earlier test, another Google vehicle couldn’t exit a four-way junction because it kept waiting for other drivers to slow down enough, which of course they didn’t, leaving it paralysed.

“The real problem is that the car is too safe,” Donald Norman, director of the University of California, San Diego’s Design Lab, told the paper.

“They have to learn to be aggressive in the right amount, and the right amount depends on the culture.”

But precisely where does it end? Humans are capable of reacting to any situation and using creativity to solve problems, even if that may result in a mistake. However, even the most advanced AI is more restricted in its programming.

Take the following philosophical problem for instance, which the MIT Technology Review posed in an article. What should a driverless car do if it is heading for an unavoidable accident, such as a huge group of people on the road?

Should it swerve away from the group as a human likely would? This could result in harming, or even killing, the car’s own occupants. So should it protect its passengers instead? In this example, the car would then plough into the group, causing potentially even more damage.

There are many questions being raised at the moment, and only time will tell how they are answered.

The future of Australian law

This leads us to our final point. In NSW and around the country, all registered vehicles have compulsory third party (CTP) insurance – also known as a green slip in NSW.

Here in NSW, insurers base green slip prices, in part, on the driver. This includes age and demerit point status. But the insurance itself is for the car. So what if the car has no driver?

And then there’s the question of fault. In some states, you need to prove fault on the part of the driver to be entitled to full benefits of the CTP insurance scheme in that state.

So again, what if there is no driver? Now you have an interesting predicament.

One solution is what Volvo has promised through its full liability scheme, whereby any accident that occurs during a Volvo car’s fully autonomous mode is covered by the marque. However, even with this, it’s clear that state laws and CTP insurance schemes will need to change in the coming years to accommodate this new fleet – preferably before 2020 when more cars are to be rolled out.

What’s your opinion on driverless vehicles in Australia?

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