Predicting the Future: Driverless Cars and Road Traffic Accident Litigation

October 11, 2016

by Chris Gutteridge

In the early 19th century, a UCL professor said that high speed rail travel would never be possible because passengers would be unable to breathe and asphyxiate. At the start of the 20th century, one of Henry Ford’s closest advisors warned him against investing in motoring: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” In 1933, Boeing predicted there would never be a bigger plane built that its 247…which held 10 people.

The problem with predicting the future is that, at some point, the future happens and we get to look back and laugh about how wrong people were. In an attempt to avoid that unflattering fate, rather than make predictions in this short article, I would like to pose questions, make some suggestions and provoke thought. I would very much like to hear your suggestions too and then in the future we can all be proven wrong together.


How long will it be before driverless cars are causing accidents and deaths on our roads?

Probably sooner than you think. In fact, in the US one death has already been attributed to an alleged failure of a high-tech car’s ‘autopilot’ feature and another similar accident was reported soon after.

In the UK, the government has recently published a consultation paper entitled ‘The Pathway to Driverless Cars’ which envisages advances in automated vehicle technologies transforming our transport system “over the next few years”. What’s more, the consultation paper highlights that ‘expert opinion’ would have members of the public buying or using “truly driverless cars” by the mid-2020s.

So, in the next 10 years, driven and driverless cars could be sharing the roads – not only with each other, of course, but with motorcyclists, cyclists, pedestrians and animals. That will inevitably mean that whilst the new technology is ‘bedding in’ failures and faults will lead to accidents (as with the ‘autopilot car’ in the US).

It will also mean that drivers and pedestrians will have to adapt their use of the roads to accommodate driverless cars. Almost all road traffic accidents are caused by human error (more than 90% according to the aforementioned consultation paper) – and that is despite the ‘rules of the road’ having remained pretty static over the last few decades. Adding an entirely new hazard to our already pretty hazardous roads is bound to cause problems.

One of those problems is likely to arise from the fact that humans are great optimisers. Pedestrians will learn that they can step in front of a driverless car knowing that it will stop to let them pass. Similarly, drivers might be more inclined to pull out in front of a driverless car expecting to be given precedence. Creating conflict between human drivers and driverless cars is sure to lead to road accidents.


How long will it be before driverless cars are preventing accidents and deaths on our roads?

On this one I have had a little help. Recently, our PI department welcomed Prof. Stephen Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Science at the University of Manchester and a founding father of microprocessor technology, to speak to us about the rise of the driverless car. Prof. Furber envisages a world where there are 85% less cars on the road, each one driverless and equipped with the intelligence to read and react to traffic conditions. Visual sensors, radar and GPS tracking would allow driverless cars to sense what is around them and travel incredibly close to other driverless traffic, accelerating and braking as needed without the prospect of a collision. We would not need traffic lights: cars could criss-cross at junctions like stunt motorcyclists. No one would (or could) break the speed limit. There would have to be greater physical separation between pedestrian areas and busy roads to prevent the flow of automated traffic being interrupted but on less busy side streets a child running into the road would never be hit. There would be no crashes. No injuries. No deaths. Unless, of course, the technology malfunctioned.

How long then, before the demise of the road traffic accident (and, therefore, the end of road traffic litigation as we know it)? We pressed Prof. Furber for his guess. He thought it would be just 30 years. Three decades until it will be illegal for humans to drive a motorcar except as a quaint hobby on private race and rally tracks.


The future of road traffic accident litigation?

Personal injury lawyers have, in recent times, proven themselves capable of adapting to unprecedented change. How will we react, though, to changes which affect what we litigate about, rather than just how we litigate? Should we be making plans now for the end of road traffic accidents in 30 years’ time? I won’t yet have reached retirement age at the point Prof. Furber imagines drivers banished from the roads. Your suggestions by email, please. Any responses will be saved for posterity and shown to my grandchildren 30 years from now in an attempt to explain to them what a human-driven car was…or what an email was for that matter.

On a serious note, please do not think I am suggesting that reducing the number of injuries and deaths on our roads would be a bad thing. Road accidents kill almost 2000 people a year in the UK and an astonishing 1.25 million people a year worldwide. That is not to mention the many thousands of people who sustain catastrophic injuries on the road. Whatever the future holds, if those injuries and deaths can be eradicated we will not look back and miss the driven car.