Driverless cars will make their way out of science fiction this year, after the government approved the testing of autonomous technology on public roads.
The Pathway to Driverless Cars report from the Department for Transport (DfT) highlighted several advantages of driverless cars, including reduced congestion, greater road safety and more free time for drivers.
However, several challenges need to be overcome for these benefits to be realised.
Driverless cars will be overloaded with software to work but this opens them to the risks that plague the internet. In theory, hackers could seize control of a vehicle's automated steering and brakes and wreak havoc on the road.
"The reliability and security of software used in driverless cars will be a major cause of concern for manufacturers and insurers," said Hugh Boyles, cyber security lead at the Institution of Engineering Technology.
"If hackers found a way to target these vehicles, this could present a whole new set of challenges that the industry is not currently equipped to tackle."
Wil Rockall, director at KPMG's Cyber Security practice, echoed Boyle's concerns. "It is important that manufacturers, regulators and the broader industry feel free to innovate," he said.
"But they can only do that if concentrated effort is put in now to understand the risks and design in security at the heart of these services."
The DfT report insisted on the need for fail-safe systems that allow passengers to take manual control in the event of a driverless systems failure or cyber attack.
Safety and liability
Testing driverless cars means putting faith in a vehicle's autonomous systems to accurately assess the conditions, obstacles and dangers on the road.
The DfT is not yet confident in the capabilities of such technology, saying that human drivers will need to be present to take control if the technology malfunctions on public roads.
This is despite the fact that Google's driverless car has covered thousands of miles in California with no recorded accidents.
Audi is likely to support this move, given that the firm's autonomous prototype (pictured) requires drivers to take over when the car reaches difficult and unpredictable urban environments.
The safety issue also poses questions about liability should an accident occur. Under current regulations, drivers are held responsible for any crashes they cause.
Boyes said that the introduction of driverless technology raises questions as to whether car manufacturers should take liability for any accidents caused by autonomous vehicles.
"As a minimum, when approving automated vehicle testing on public roads, manufacturers must accept that software in their vehicles attracts the same liability as the physical components of the vehicle," he said.
New mechanics needed
Driverless cars will oblige engineers and mechanics to learn new skills to service and repair autonomous vehicles, but the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) believes the UK does not have the skills or infrastructure to keep driverless cars on the road.
Steve Nash, IMI's chief executive, is urging automotive businesses to focus on training workers for future repair and service demands as driverless cars reach public roads.
"Even if driverless cars do not become common, their development will accelerate the inclusion of driver aid and driver safety systems on modern vehicles, raising the skills requirement to work on them," he said.
Nash also pointed out that there are currently no licence or best practice requirements needed to work on driverless cars.
This leaves the industry open to non-experts who might not develop vehicles that are up to the standards normally expected in the automotive industry, according to Nash.
"It is therefore vital that the automotive industry steps up and takes the lead on this issue. It will be our reputation on the line when motorists are let down," he said.
Nash's concerns may be eased by the DfT's commitment to create a code of practice to see that driverless cars keep passengers and pedestrians safe.
These challenges are certainly potential bumps on the road to driverless cars, but the technology and automotive industries appear committed to developing autonomous systems.
New chips from NVidia will bring the necessary processing power, and Google continues to push ahead with its driverless car technology (pictured above).
The reaction to driverless cars and whether they can earn their place on the UK's roads has yet to be seen, but testing is already underway and we could see a lot more self-driving vehicles in the near future.
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