The day of the writing of this blog post, Vanderbilt University–yes, the one situated in Nashville, Tennessee–is closed for its second straight Snow Day.  While frigid temperatures and power outages pose incidental hazards, the main reason for closing shops and schools today is hazardous travel conditions.  And, as far as I know, the overwhelming proportion of students, faculty, and staff do not fly in by helicopter, run several miles carrying books, or sleep overnight at the school.  Most people partake in one of the most dangerous forms of travel–they drive.  One way to make this form of travel more safe, and possibly avoid future Snow Days, is the implementation of driverless cars.

On February 11th, 2015, the United Kingdom government–specifically, the Department of Transport–released its report on driverless car technologies, entitled, “The Pathway to Driverless Cars: A detailed review of regulations for automated vehicle technologies.”   In this report, as summarized by TechCrunch, the UK government has noted that there are no legal or regulatory barriers inhibiting people from driving hands-free cars.  This does not mean, however, that cars can be fully automated.  This simply gives the go-ahead for testing cars that drivers can disengage control from, but re-control if necessary.

So while we likely will not be seeing any iRobot-esque cars high-tailing it around Big Ben, this is a step up from simple cruise control.  These “higher levels of automation,” the report discusses, “are designed to allow the driver to completely ‘disengage’ from the driving task and undertake other tasks.  This is sometimes known as the driver coming ‘out of the loop’.”  So, for example, a driver could check work emails, eat breakfast, or play Candy Crush on their way to work, but they must be able to take control of the wheel at a moment’s notice.

It seems as though full automation is inevitable, both in the UK and the rest of the world.  Not only are driverless cars potentially safer than average drivers, but they also could reduce pollution.  However, the UK government still sees legal barriers present in the areas of liability, regulations, and safety.  But we are on the right path.  In fact, in July of 2014, Johnson County in Iowa became one of the first counties in America to give the thumbs up to driverless cars.  The only thing that needs to happen is for driverless cars to navigate these legal barriers and actually enter Johnson County.  But Americans seem to be embracing the idea of driverless cars.  After weighing the loss of control with the potential benefits of driverless cars, a slim majority of Americans were found to be “excited for driverless cars.”

So while the regulatory framework for driverless cars still must be ironed out, the international community is taking another step towards making our roads safer and cleaner.  Like with all technology, we must pay heed to the potential problems that could arise.  But hopefully the law can keep up with the ever-changing and increasingly dynamic world of technology.  Our future–and my education–might just depend on it.


Jackson Sattell

One Response to Controlling the Uncontrollable: UK Taking the Driver’s Seat in Driverless Car Technology

  1. Ryan Dewey says:

    A thoughtful and forward-looking piece. Given the regulatory issues presented by this innovation and the immense controversy over the costs presented by the required installation of airbags in cars back in the 1980s (see Reg. State), I imagine that widespread implementation and use of this technology is a ways off. Too bad. Though I’m not a candy crusher myself, I would appreciate a mental reprieve from Nashville’s congested-and of late, icy-thoroughfares.

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