Government policy rather than technology is roadblock to new era of driverless cars

With large-scale trials set to begin in three cities next year, Irish legislators need to act quickly to get in the fast lane of latest innovation

Google’s prototype driverless car

Thanks to renewed government and legislative efforts, British roads may be bumper to bumper with autonomous cars sooner than you might expect. Whether Ireland reaps the benefit of this innovation depends on whether regulators embrace the change, or run away from it.

Britain’s business secretary Vince Cable plans to start the process to legalise driverless cars in Britain. Three cities will be chosen for large-scale trials from 2015, while a purse of £10 million will be made available to innovators.

Relying on a combination of radar and computer vision to “see” in 360 degrees and guided by GPS around 3D maps, self-driving cars are about more than safe texting from the driver’s seat.The scale of change that will come about when these vehicles hit our roads in large numbers is likely to take many of us by surprise.

The real innovation behind a driverless car isn’t that you can relax when you drive – it’s that they are far safer, are more efficient users of roads and, for the first time, you may not need to own one to reap the benefits.


The foundations for these changes have already been laid, and closer to home than Silicon Valley. Using apps such as Hailo and Uber, consumers have quickly grown accustomed to summoning taxis with their smartphones, pinning their location on a map while a server routes the closest vehicle.

These technologies have offered benefits to both drivers and consumers, but the jump to autonomous driverless taxis is not far away. This innovation will be highly disruptive for the taxi industry but may well promise further advantages for consumers.

A recent Columbia University study estimated that in dense urban areas such as Manhattan, a fleet of shared driverless vehicles could cost as little as an eighth as much as a taxi to operate.

The advantages of autonomous cars don’t begin and end with convenience or low costs. About 90 per cent of traffic accidents are related to human error. To date, Google’s self-driving cars have logged more than 700,000 miles of accident-free driving.

Further on, there will be foolproof controls on speed, and an end to drunk and sleep-deprived drivers. The next wave of progress comes from better communications technology as opposed to larger crumple zones.

The US National Highway Safety Administration has already signalled plans to propose that new cars be mandated to include "vehicle-to- vehicle" safety features. While recent vehicle safety improvements have focused on protecting passengers when a collision occurs, vehicle-to-vehicle technologies would make cars aware of each other electronically and ensure they don't collide in the first place.

Further down the line, when autonomous cars hold the major share of road traffic, more cars will be able to share the road safely.

Road deaths

According to the World Health Organisation, 1.24 million people lose their lives each year on the roads. Limited road space can be used more efficiently by cars controlled by cooperative computer models than competitive drivers guessing each other’s intentions.

Traffic lights will become obsolete and commutes will become shorter and more productive. This technology has the potential to prevent tens of millions of road deaths and to improve the lives of hundreds of millions more.

As in much of the rest of the world, autonomous cars are not specifically prohibited in Ireland. Yet without clear guidelines on legality, manufacturers will avoid this country for testing and development.

Insuring such a vehicle is not yet possible. Public trust and confidence in driverless cars will depend on a regulated environment that ensures safety. The Road Safety Authority has adopted a wait-and-see approach, with an upcoming public consultation to inform its policy.

Responding to a Dáil question on driverless cars, former minister of transport, tourism and sport Leo Varadkar said: "It is absolutely the case that technology is ahead of legislation, but it is very hard to write legislation in anticipation of technologies that might or might not develop".

We can’t predict the future, but in this case solid economics, mature technology and compelling consumer benefits suggest inevitable revolution.

While it's true that technology often outpaces regulatory limits, in practice regulation shapes technological development just as much as technology shapes regulation. Electric car pioneer Tesla has fallen foul of archaic laws in several US states prohibiting them from selling their cars direct to consumers over the internet. House-sharing innovator Airbnb is of finding itself facing some serious legal hurdles in New York due to laws related to rent control. Uber and Lyft are facing legal challenges from Berlin to Virginia.

Big companies can, of course, fight through these prohibitions with their own heavyweight in-house legal teams but startups don’t have the resources. Either way, consumers lose out.

The common characteristic between these examples is the presence of a disruptive technology or business model that threatens a status quo. Regulation has the capacity to cater for innovation or stymie it.

Technological change

It’s telling that it’s Vince Cable’s announcement of changes in law that have offered Britain a chance to lead in this area, and not a technological advancement. The largest hurdles at this point are regulatory. Driverless cars will be immensely disruptive in many industries.

On his invention of the model T, Henry Ford famously said, "If I'd asked them what they wanted, they would have said 'a faster horse'." National debate about public transport and road safety has too often reflected these same "faster horse" sentiments.

For some groups, these innovations will offer great challenges. For many more, they offer solutions to problems that have been fiendishly difficult to resolve, from transport in rural communities to road deaths and from public transport to road capacity. Managing how technological change affects workers requires early planning from government and an open public debate.

In the 1800s, the British parliament required the first locomotives and automobiles to be led by a man walking in front of them waving a red flag. Conservatism and protectionism was the order of the day.

Regulators are now only just beginning to consider the prospect of a driverless future – the next few months and years will decide whether Ireland welcomes innovation or seeks out the man with the red flag.

Dan Hayden is a specialist at UCD's Innovation Academy. His research focuses on regulation. He tweets at @danjhayden