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Adrian Weckler: Is Ireland fit for driverless cars?


The latest Audi A8 features technology that allows it a degree of autonomy.  Photo: Bloomberg

The latest Audi A8 features technology that allows it a degree of autonomy. Photo: Bloomberg

The latest Audi A8 features technology that allows it a degree of autonomy. Photo: Bloomberg

Is Ireland starting to get self-driving cars through the back door? Last week, Audi launched the fourth generation of its luxury model, the A8. Alongside the usual fancy upgrades, the car has what Audi says is "level-three" autonomy.

"This means you can take your hands off the steering wheel and the car does the rest," said Dietmar Voggenreiter, Audi's global head of sales and marketing.

So does this mean we can now get into the car in the morning, tell it where to go and lie back for a snooze? Not quite.

As many readers will know, there are five self-driving 'levels' that cars fall into. Level one is the most basic assistance mechanisms, such as cruise control.

Level two encompasses cumulative driverless features, such as emergency braking and 'lane assist', where the car can steer itself back from crossing a motorway lane.

Level three, where Audi is positioning itself now, is where things start to get much more automated.

Here, the car can make advanced decisions based on monitoring traffic and conditions around it. In theory, a level-three car can drive for an extended period with no hands on the steering wheel or a foot on any pedal.

However, level-three vehicles are not considered to be fully capable of dealing with complex traffic scenarios and revert back to manual control at very short notice when an issue occurs.

For this reason, some car manufacturers are skipping this level to go straight to level four.

Here, the driver is still present, but will not be expected to intervene, even in a problem situation. In other words, the car can drive itself. To this end, many level-fours are not expected to have steering wheels or pedals.

Level five is the absolute driverless car, with the vehicle capable of doing anything on the road without any human interaction. This is where cities quickly become dominated by fleets of continuous self-driving vehicles that act as a new wave of transportation for people.

Audi is hardly alone in pushing autonomy as a new feature in its latest high-end cars. Tesla says it will have level-four vehicles on the road by the end of next year. Ford says that its level-four cars will be available by 2021.

Given how imminent this is, there are some huge legal, regulatory and financial issues that may have to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

Right now, Irish law doesn't recognise any form of automation as an acceptable assistant to a driver. If you drive without your hands on the steering wheel, a garda can caution you for dangerous driving, regardless of the car's automation.

In a worst-case scenario involving a serious accident, it isn't yet any defence to claim that the driver left the car's computer in control.

Similarly, insurance companies here have not yet modelled policies that cater for self-driving cars. This step may not be far off, however. Earlier this year, the UK government set out guidelines for how liability on self-driving vehicles will be settled, placing most responsibility on insurers. With the availability of cars like the A8 now hitting the roads, insurance companies may start to look at adapting their policies.

In theory, insurance on driverless cars should be cheaper than for manually-operated vehicles. This is based on the idea that when computers are in charge, there are less accidents. In the US, there seems to be some early evidence of this.

Crashes involving Tesla vehicles have fallen by 40pc since the company introduced its 'Autopilot' function, a 'level-two' feature. Less crashes means less payouts. That should mean lower premiums. Tesla certainly sees it this way, seizing an opportunity in some markets to sell its own insurance at the time of the car purchase.

What might be interesting is whether insurers seek to move ahead of regulatory authorities in Ireland. Will an Audi or a Tesla driver soon qualify for cheaper insurance based on the insurer's estimate that this driver is likely to use some of the car's in-built automation (and hence have fewer crashes)?

There are still some basic things about self-driving cars that the public will need time to come to terms with.

While such vehicles will probably reduce injuries and fatalities on the roads, there will be tragedies.

In particular, there will be times when a car's onboard computer will be required to choose between bad results.

An example might be when a child on a bicycle races out in front of a car and the only avoidance option is to drive into a tree, possibly killing the car's driver or passengers. Which does the car choose?

Does that choice change if one of the car's passengers is a child?

There are also those who simply dislike the idea of self-driving cars. Other than sectors that stand to lose out on business, such as lawyers in insurance or injury cases, there is arguably a generational divide.

Older men, in particular, associate driving a car with control and freedom.

Younger generations care much less: there has been a 28pc fall in driving test applications in the UK over the last decade. Millennials, and the generation that comes after them, look set to prize many other things higher than control of a vehicle.

Autonomous cars, vans, buses and trucks could represent the single biggest technological change that ordinary Irish people see over the next 10 years.

The benefits could be huge. Obviously, crashes are expected to fall. Insurance premiums might, too.

On a wider level, it could see the reversal of what Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae has called the destruction of rural socialising because of drink-driving laws (in a fully self-driving car, it doesn't matter if you've had five pints).

It could also result in what Audi has described as the "25th hour", extra time to focus on work or leisure things because you don't have to drive your vehicle.

But whether we welcome it or dread it, driverless cars are coming. Audi's A8 is just the first step.

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