Driver cars could be halted by leaves and seagulls, warns Law Commission

Charles Hymas
Driverless cars on trial - People's Daily Online

Driverless cars could be halted by leaves, seagulls or the “wrong sort of snow”, causing gridlock in cities, the Law Commission has warned.

In a major report outlining a potential regulatory and licensing regime for self-driving cars, the Commission said one of the big fears of software developers is “frozen robot syndrome” where the vehicle cannot work out what to do when faced with a new hazard.

This is “where the vehicle freezes in the presence of possible obstacles (including leaves, plastic bags or seagulls),” said the Commission.

“The most obvious problems will be overcome during testing. However, at least in the early stages, vehicles may well have a tendency to stop when faced with unusual events, such as unexpected weather or inconsistent sensor information. This could have a disruptive effect on traffic flow.”

The Commission cites one scenario where all the driverless vehicles in a city break down on the same day “after a flurry of ‘the wrong sort of snow’, causing widespread traffic disruption.”

While such crises might not be possible to anticipate, the commission says regulations and protocols would ensure the operators removed the vehicles quickly and learned the lessons to avoid a repeat.

“Operators will need effective protocols to deal effectively with situations where their vehicles find themselves in the wrong place or subject to a systems failure,” says the Commission.

The Commission says driverless cars could have major benefits by reducing the number and use of privately-owned cars, cutting congestion and pollution, and by providing safer, more affordable transport. This would particularly help the elderly and disabled with a cheaper door-to-door service.

However, it also warns of downsides that regulation needs to address such as an initial increase in vehicles on the road before private ownership declines.

This could increase congestion as empty driverless vehicles slowly “cruise” the streets in search of passengers rather than having to pay the extra expense of parking.

The commission plans for a new national regulatory scheme and licensing system aims to avoid a driverless car free-for-all.

In particular, it addresses the potential pitfalls for the disabled and increasing number of elderly who frequently use private hire cars or taxis to take them to the shops or appointments and need a driver to help them.

“Many frail and anxious people rely on a driver to escort them from their door to the vehicle, to help them board and to help them alight. Drivers provide a human presence and reassurance that will be difficult to replicate in an automated service,” it says.

It therefore proposes equality laws should be applied to automated vehicles, with operators facing potential loss of their licences for discrimination, and recommends that the needs of the growing number of elderly in the UK should be designed into systems and licences from the start.

George Freeman, transport minister, said: “We are on the cusp of a quiet revolution in the technology of transport and mobility.  Automated navigation and digital control technology have the potential to transform the way traffic is managed, improving road safety, reducing congestion and pollution and improving accessibility for people with mobility issues.

“We intend to lead the work in setting the right regulatory standards.  That’s why we are conducting a major Regulatory Review on the Future of Mobility and recently launched a new project to create the world’s first safety scheme for self-driving vehicles, CAV PASS, and have commissioned the Law Commission to look into the legal and regulatory requirements for this technology.”

Nicholas Paines QC, Law Commissioner at the Law Commission of England and Wales, said: “Self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionise mass transit by enhancing safety, efficiency and accessibility.”

“Responses to our consultation are vital for ensuring that our proposed regulatory framework will allow the full potential of self-driving cars to be realised, and we hope as many people as possible will respond.”