Driverless cars and the equitable, safe and slow roads of the future

driverless cars as speed limiters

It’s always risky putting too much faith in technology, but the prospect of driverless cars becoming the ultimate traffic calming measure is hard to resist.

Motorists are teased with visions of driverless cars as luxurious and relaxing private retreats clever enough to take over menial tasks, but ready to relinquish control at a moment’s notice. However, the reality of networked fleet could bring a significant benefit for everyone else too. In fact, it could be a world first – roads on which all cars are travelling at, or below, the speed limit.

If you are frustrated by cars racing down your 20 mph residential road, fear not – the driverless cars of the near future will be incapable of travelling any faster than the speed of a cyclist. And if you worry at the congestion or rat running outside your child’s school at drop-off and pick-up times, worry not – driverless cars could be re-routed to avoid these areas completely.

Another potential benefit of automated cars is that they don’t have to account for very much of the overall fleet in order for them to have a highly effective pace car effect; on most roads, one in ten cars travelling at the speed limit ensures every other vehicle travels at the same speed.

Driverless car tech looks likely to calm the roads in other ways too. Today’s roads have something of a frontiers feel about them. The Highway Code may make it clear how drivers should behave, but many dangerous habits such as speeding are considered socially acceptable and worse still, those motorists who kill and maim rarely feel the full weight of the law.

Another unintended consequence of driverless car technology may be that it forces motor insurers to improve their moral standards.

As a driver, it’s natural to assume that one’s insurer will act with decency. Unfortunately, the events that take place on your behalf following a collision in which you are at fault take place largely behind the scenes. At present, in the event of a claim, motor insurers do all they can to reduce their liability – even when the driver they represent is clearly at fault. Sharp business practice might protect the bottom line, but it adds significantly to the trauma suffered by the victims of road traffic collisions.

For example, when a speeding driver mounted a grass verge and ran over a child, leaving her permanently brain damaged, his motor insurer Churchill, challenged a judge’s decision to award £5 m for long-term care and succeeded in reducing the payment. On a smaller scale, as a cycle insurer that represents cyclists injured in road traffic collisions, we are faced systematically with motor insurers trying to avoid their moral responsibilities.

However, all this might be about to change with the advent of vehicles equipped with automated driver function (ADF). Ironically, it may be the computers driving our cars of the future that will imbue the motor insurance industry with a sense of moral responsibility.

First off, autonomous vehicles will be safer than those piloted by humans. By contrast with us, machines do not have egos, get tired, suffer road rage or drink alcohol. Secondly, machines can process and act upon information far quicker, which makes them safer. Most importantly, the government is to reform vehicle insurance legislation to make it better suited to autonomous vehicles – in the process, the victims of road traffic collisions may find themselves better protected.

driverless car, moral standards

The friendly face of driverless car technology

The change will be needed because motor insurance in Britain is based on the driver rather than the vehicle – a model that does not translate to the use of driverless cars. Ministers want the victims of crashes involving autonomous vehicles to be compensated quickly. As a result, it seems likely that Part IV of the Road Traffic Act 1988 will be modified to include the use of autonomous vehicles.

A new model will be established that covers both the driver’s use of the car and the technology itself – other roads users injured by an autonomous vehicle in ‘driverless’ mode will be automatically compensated by the insurer. Another benefit is that as the use of such technology becomes the norm, the number of road traffic collisions will be reduced dramatically. Furthermore, the sea of data collected by autonomous vehicles should ensure fewer claims for compensation can be contested.

Britain’s most ethical insurance company

The ETA has been voted the most ethical insurance company in Britain for the second year running by the Good Shopping Guide.

Beating household-name insurance companies such as John Lewis and the Co-op, the ETA earned an ethical company index score of 89.

The ETA was established in 1990 as an ethical provider of green, reliable travel services. Twenty seven years on, we continue to offer cycle insurancetravel insurance and breakdown cover while putting concern for the environment at the heart of all we do.

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  1. Jonathan Hunt


    A fully automated driverless system sounds like near utopia for a cyclist. All of the accidents and near misses have been down to driver error, be it impatience, SMIDSY, intolerance or lack of concentration. A driverless car would have none of these traits.

  2. Sam Marshall


    The article asserts that driverless cars will be better, but right now none of that is a given.
    – They are not always faster than humans at responding – our brains are far superior at doing massively parallel computations.
    – We have no real-world data on error rates. All complex computational systems have bugs and poor algorithms. Handing over to a disengaged human when things get tricky is not an option.
    -We don’t know driverless cars will avoid congestion. It may increase if we can do other things so sitting in congestion is less frustrating to the driver (but does nothing to help the cyclist).

    • The ETA


      …but they will be forced to stick to speed limits – and that will be a world first for almost every single road in the world

  3. Paul Lovatt Smith


    I’m wary of new technology but can’t wait for driverless cars. I agree with you that they should make roads a lot safer which will encourage more cycling, walking, horse-riding etc on our minor roads, leaving them more as they were before the motorist came along and pushed everyone else off the road.

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