Britons had started to accept self-driving cars and were becoming increasingly confident about their safety credentials before one was involved in the death of a pedestrian in the US at the weekend.
A consumer study by Deloitte found that half of UK respondents (51 per cent) believed self-driving cars will be safe. That was up from 27 per cent who answered the annual survey 12 months earlier.
This is likely to be dented after one of Uber’s fleet of autonomous Volvo SUVs was in a collision with 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona on Sunday evening, marking the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle on public roads since their incarnation.
Police in a Phoenix suburb said one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles (like the one pictured) struck and killed a pedestrian. Police in the city of Tempe said that the vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel when the collision happened
The death is likely to reignite fears about the imminent introduction and testing of driverless cars in the UK, with the Government increasing funding to make the country a world leader in autonomous vehicle technology.
Deloitte had polled 22,000 people across 17 different nations on their attitudes. The insight provider said the feedback from UK drivers was in-line with the thoughts of motorists from other countries, with people generally growing more trusting of the technology.
Chancellor Philip Hammond revealed in November last year that he wants fully-driverless cars on UK roads by 2021.
Just last week, roads minister Jesse Norman announced a review by the Law Commission that will examine any legal obstacles that might restrict the widespread introduction of self-driving vehicles in Britain in time for the chancellor’s deadline.
With ministers backing their introduction and an increasing number of car manufacturers working to create their own systems, motorists had become less fearful of the technology, according to a new report.
Deloitte said some 70 per cent of Italians polled said they believed self-driving cars would be safe, while 63 per cent of French drivers felt confident about improvements to road safety.
However, the first fatality could undo much of the work done to convince the public that autonomous vehicles are the next logical step for global transport.
Police reports from the weekend’s incident claim that the Uber vehicle that struck and killed Elaine Herzberg was operating in automated mode at the time, though there was a human in the driver’s seat.
A spokesperson for Tempe police suggested that the vehicle was travelling at 40mph and showed no significant signs of slowing down before the impact.
The suggested failure of the system to recognise the risk ahead could change consumer attitude towards trials taking place in the UK, with Uber suspending all of their testing with immediate effect in the US.
According to police, Herzberg was hit by an SUV (pictured) at around 10pm on Sunday in Tempe when she was walking her bicycle outside of a crosswalk
Uber has since suspended all of its US trials involving autonomous vehicles
Why had trust grown among consumers?
Deloitte said one of the most influential factors for a growing acceptance of autonomous vehicles before the fatal incident was the increased involvement of trusted brands developing the technology.
Over half (53 per cent) of respondents said they would trust an autonomous vehicle that was manufactured by an established company, up from 44 per cent who completed the poll in 2017.
That said, fewer were convinced by systems developed by non car-making firms.
Just 21 per cent of consumers said they had faith in self-driving systems brought to market by tech firms, such as Uber, as more felt comfortable with technology derived from auto makers.
Mike Woodward, UK automotive leader at Deloitte, said: ‘The significant improvement in consumer trust in autonomous vehicles is a critical step in progressing driverless technology.
‘Although driverless cars are still at an experimental phase, building consumer trust in the industry will be a key step in its future success.’
Jaguar Land Rover originally conducted a short trial of connected and autonomous car technology in November 2017 on roads in Coventry
Jaguar Land Rover is expected to conduct more tests in Coventry and Milton Keynes throughout 2018
In light of recent activity, UK ministers now face pressure to increase the safeguarding of road users and provide more clarity about where responsibility lies if collisions take place involving driverless cars.
Much of this is likely to be covered in the law review confirmed last week, which will focus on apportioning blame in crashes involving other motorists, cyclists and pedestrians – and consider how everyone can be protected from risk.
WILL DRIVERLESS VEHICLES BE ON THE ROAD BY 2021?
More than two thirds of the UK’s small and medium-sized enterprises don’t expect to see self-driving cars on our roads in three years’ time, with the transport and haulage sector particularly uncertain, new research from Close Brothers Asset Finance said.
Of the 965 UK SMEs contacted, just 31 per cent expect to see widespread use of autonomous vehicles in 2021, falling to 21 per cent in the transport sector.
The prospect of driverless cars is currently seen as neither a threat nor an opportunity for most businesses.
Only nine per cent of business owners expect their business to be impacted by self-driving cars, while 69 per cent don’t expect any change; the remaining 23 per cent think it’s too early to tell.
The first crash involving an autonomous car could see Uber held criminally liable due to an executive order signed earlier this month by Arizona’s governor.
Republican Doug Ducey’s new rules were implemented on March 1 and outlined the list of licensing and registration requirements for driverless car operators.
The official order specifies that a ‘person’ subject to the laws includes any corporation incorporated in Arizona, putting Uber in a position of responsibility.
Speaking last week, Mr Norman said: ‘The UK is a world leader for self-driving vehicle research and development, and this work marks an important milestone in our continued commitment to the technology.
‘With driving technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, it is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain one of the world leaders in this field.’
Plans to support the driverless car industry, which officials estimate will be worth £28 billion to the economy by 2035 and support 27,000 jobs, were part of a package of measures announced in the previous Budget that were designed to help the UK become a world leader in the technological revolution.
Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said this week’s tragic event in the US served to draw attention to the challenges of incorporating autonomous vehicles into ‘an incumbent system operating with manned vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users’.
She added: ‘In 2016 the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in our Case Study on Autonomous and Driverless Cars raised the need to address societal questions before highly and fully automated cars are both accepted and legally able to be positioned on our roads; this will include having the right regulatory framework in place.
‘Engineers will need to create an environment where connected autonomous vehicles can operate safely with or without an operator during the transition period to a fully autonomous vehicle system.
‘This transition period could last for several decades.’
The GATEway Project is due to commence this year, with driverless pods being used as a shuttle service around the Greenwich peninsula to gauge public reaction
Nissan tested an electric Leaf with autonomous driving tech on London’s roads in 2017
Despite the claims that the country has time to adapt to their introduction, numerous driverless vehicle trials have already taken place or are being conducted in the UK.
Mr Norman last week visited the GATEway Project – a scheme that will see a fleet of autonomous pods provide a shuttle service around the Greenwich peninsula to gauge public reaction to self-driving vehicles.
Jaguar Land Rover has also been undertaking tests of autonomous driving technology on the streets of Coventry in November, with more trials scheduled to take place there and in Milton Keynes throughout 2018.
And Nissan has previously tested a self-driving electric Leaf around the Docklands area of London a little over a year ago.
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