Autonomous technology needs public understanding and trust

The new House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry into autonomous vehicles isn’t just another inquiry.

It’s a vital step in regulation of technologies that have the potential to be transformational for the economy and society, an impact similar to that of the first motorised vehicles. Cars took 30 to 40 years for regulation to evolve effectively. For unmanned aerial vehicles (the ‘drones’) and driverless cars, regulation needs to be clarified urgently.

At stake is a predicted figure of £51 billion for the UK economy each year. The central question for the inquiry is how can the UK make the most of its early developmental strengths to become a world leader in combining the new tech with existing infrastructure? Because it’s a race in terms of regulation. Whoever gets the framework right first will be in a position to dominate the global market, with products built around those regulations. On the one hand the US has an advantage in terms of its tech industries and sheer space for testing - but it may also have the problem of getting agreements between state systems. 

The range of benefits from a future of autonomous transport systems will make the pain of new regulation worthwhile. By 2030, the introduction of driverless vehicles is expected to save 2,500 lives and reduce number of serious accidents by 25,000 each year. Greater traffic management will reduce congestion and lower journey times, reduce CO2 emissions and noise. Driverless vehicles won’t need to be parked in crowded central areas but tidy themselves up and park out of town. More than a million UK drivers are aged over 80 (and 100,000 over 90). Driverless cars will allow mobility and independence to any age, without relying on public transport and its subsidised cost. 

Autonomy will speed up the air travel for everyone due to less time needed for refuelling and maintenance and improved efficiency of ground operations. Greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will take delivery traffic off roads, and have a range of important uses in security, environmental and infrastructure monitoring, as well as across agriculture. A future of precision farming, improving yields and reducing waste in order to address issues of global food supplies, will be based on autonomous vehicles and systems creating a ‘factory in the field’.

The greatest challenge ahead is gaining public understanding and trust of autonomous tech in the skies and on the roads. The autonomous revolution isn’t inevitable in any way. For example, even when all the evidence suggests that its human error that leads to the great majority of car accidents (said to be 93%), we don’t trust ‘robots’. IT systems and technology of any kind have the potential to malfunction, meaning that accidents are possible, and these will be more complex and more unexpected than those we’re used to involving human misjudgment. The reliance of autonomous systems on constant, rapid data sharing means they will, in principle, be open to cyber attacks. 

On our side, in research and in industry, we need to collaborate and share knowledge on development and testing that can prove safety. At Cranfield we’re using our facilities - an operational airport, and a new Multi-User Environment for Autonomous Vehicle Innovation, a fully functioning roadway with pedestrian access running through the centre of the campus - as a working testbed that can get to the heart of the issue. Not only developing the new autonomous tech, but understanding how it interacts with complex real-world environments. A priority for the Government, alongside getting the balance of regulation right, is to make sure they’re helping bring the public along on the journey. 

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