There was that momentary frisson of excitement that you might have just caught a glimpse of the future. In the week of Back To The Future day, it was rather like picking up a certain DeLorean in your peripheral vision. Cruising up Dublin's M50 motorway was a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, on German plates, bearing the logos of Valeo, the French based automotive technology supplier, which just happens to have a major R&D office in Tuam, County Galway.
Up on top of the Merc's roof was a strange looking apparatus that at a casual glance could be mistaken for a roof rack, or possibly a heated towel rail in transit. But anyone familiar with robotic, autonomous cars knows that the prototype sensor arrays for such self-driving tech looks just like roof-mounted scaffold. So was this really a glimpse at the future then? Was a robotic car loose on the streets of Ireland for the first time?
Sadly no. A quick phone call to Valeo put The Irish Times in touch with Virgine Tardi, one of the company's press officers, who had to let us down gently. "We do have an R&D centre in Ireland but we are not testing the autonomous car there. The car you saw was not testing autonomous driving systems, rather surround view and parking solutions."
Ah well, foiled again. Excitement dissipated. The worrying thing is though that we, as a nation, are genuinely not ready for the next big step in car technology - the self-driving car, and it’s coming down the tracks far faster than we might imagine.
According to the Department of Transport “The law at present does not provide for driverless cars - there is a presumption that someone must be driving a mechanically propelled vehicle. Technology in this area is advancing at a rapid rate, however the Department does not believe that it has yet reached a stage where legislation is appropriate. Any testing of driverless cars in this jurisdiction would therefore have to be on private land rather than on public roads. The Department will continue to monitor the development of this technology and how it is being managed in other jurisdictions. The Department will consider legislating as and when the technology reaches such a point that legislation is appropriate.”
Well, with Mercedes saying that next year's E-Class will contain a high proportion of driverless tech, and many more companies following suit in short order, now would seem to be an appropriate time. In Europe, the use of autonomous cars is effectively governed by the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic of 1968. 72 countries all signed the convention in 1968 but not all have since ratified and enforced it. Article 8 VC stipulates the requirement that a vehicle must have a driver while Article 13 states that a driver must be in control of his or her vehicle in all circumstances. An amendment to those articles has been proposed and approved, but not yet officially signed into being.
Even when it is though, that’s no help to us. “Ireland is not a signatory to this Convention” says the Department of Transport, so even if someone were to wish to test or sell a driverless car here “as above, there is no legislative provision for such applications.”
This is fast becoming a serious issue, and not just in Ireland. The UK, a signatory to the Vienna Convention but one which has never officially ratified it, faces similar legislative problems. Meanwhile, Volvo, which has already said that it will take legal responsibility for its self-driving cars when they are operating in autonomous mode, has warned law makers that they are in danger of holding back autonomous car development because of a ‘patchwork’ of conflicting and competing rules.
"The US risks losing its leading position due to the lack of Federal guidelines for the testing and certification of autonomous vehicles," said Volvo's CEO Håkan Samuelsson at a high level seminar on self-driving cars organised by Volvo Cars and the Embassy of Sweden in Washington DC. "Europe has suffered to some extent by having a patchwork of rules and regulations. It would be a shame if the US took a similar path to Europe in this crucial area.
“The absence of one set of rules means car makers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet all the different guidelines of all 50 US states. If we are to ensure a smooth transition to autonomous mobility then together we must create the necessary framework that will support this.”
In the US, some key states such as Nevada and California have already agreed standards and licences for self-driving cars, but a great many more areas are lagging behind. the Environmental Protection Agency is working to try and come up with a binding set of Federal regulations which will apply to all states.
We therefore face something of a Jurassic Park situation - all this wonderful scientific development has taken place, and the theme park attractions, so to speak, are all almost ready for their public debuts. But we, the people, just don’t seem to be ready for them. We’d better start getting ready, fast.