High‐level talks between the EU and the US are critical if we are to have self‐driving cars any time soon, carmakers, lawyers, and researchers agree.
The only reason Europeans can drive their cars from France to Germany through Belgium is because governments and carmakers sat down 65 years ago and agreed on a set of international rules for a how a car should behave on the road.
However, the rules in the 1949 Geneva Convention, and later the 1968 Vienna Convention, will need souping up as we move into the era of semi‐automated cars that use adaptive cruise control to give drivers a rest during long motorway trips, and self‐driving pods, which are already being tested under controlled conditions in our cities.
‘The Vienna Convention is not just a static document ... it exists within international structures for vehicle safety and vehicle regulation,’ said Professor Bryant Walker Smith, a specialist in automated cars at the University of South Carolina, US. ‘As we’re looking for potential best practices, or even standards or eventually requirements, for those vehicles, those existing structures are useful.’
The final destination of automated vehicles is a future where you can call your car, 'Knight Rider'‐style, and it will come from a remote parking garage and pick you up, before taking you to work or to the beach without you having to touch the dashboard.
‘What is going to come in a decade or two? … You could say people are going to have mobile living rooms– they can be in a car, it takes them to another place, they could be there for a day or two with a nice ocean view,’ said Anders Eugensson at carmaker Volvo, who was involved in an EU‐US symposium on road automation organised by the European Commission, the US Department of Transportation and the Transportation Research Board.
‘You can be mobile in a different way.’
But European researchers have a long way to go before we reach that point, and one of the quickest ways to get there is to swap ideas with researchers from the US and Japan.
‘It’s something we have to do together because there is too much to do on our own.’
Dr Natasha Merat, University of Leeds, UK
‘Because there is so much to be done, I do think it (international collaboration) is critical,’ said Dr Natasha Merat, from the University of Leeds, who has been involved in talks between carmakers, researchers and policymakers in Europe, the US and Japan, and in the EU‐US symposium, which is happening under an agreement set up recently between the EU and the US to team up on road transport research.
‘It’s something we have to do together because there is too much to do on our own.’
While the US invested heavily in road automation technology in the 1990s via the National Automated Highway Systems Consortium, Europe is now out in front when it comes to public investment in automated vehicle development, particularly in terms of urban mobility technologies, researchers say.
‘Europe has been really much further ahead than the Americans in this field in terms of publicly funded research for the last 10, 15 years,’ said Dr Merat.
In Japan, carmakers such as Nissan and Toyota have been testing their own versions of advanced driver assisting technology.
Partly driven by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenges of the 2000s, in which teams competed to design driverless vehicles, as well as efforts from web firm Google to develop self‐driving pods, US researchers are now putting their collective foot on the gas in an effort to catch up.
So far, researchers and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have agreed that the next main goal is to get cities in each region involved in setting up demonstration projects with automated car prototypes driving out in the open on public roads.
One of the main ways that these talks will help accelerate the development of self‐driving cars is through the exchange of test data, such as information about what happens in crashes.
‘We’ve been gathering crash data for many, many years and with the new systems the usefulness of that is limited in many ways because new technologies are behaving very differently,’ said Volvo’s Eugensson. ‘This is a chance to get much better data if we get it from both sides of the Atlantic, and we get much more data.’
Often the biggest problem with fully automated cars is seen as being liability – who’s at fault when things go wrong. If carmakers find themselves on the hook for every fender bender, then some people fear the cost could just outweigh the benefit.
However, Prof. Walker Smith, who has been involved in the symposium discussions between Europe and the US, believes that this isn’t quite the barrier it seems to be.
‘On the question of civil liability - that is, who pays for injuries that result - that will necessarily be fact-dependent and can be resolved using existing principles,’ he said. ‘Courts and others are already adept at dealing with complex crashes and complex liability.
‘The idea that liability is somehow a barrier is a very pessimistic view of the technology because it suggests that there will be so many crashes of such magnitude that no company will be able to predict or manage the loss.’
While the issue of liability can’t be totally solved during international discussions - as in the end it’ll be down to national lawmakers to adapt their own traffic laws to accommodate driverless vehicles - many of the underlying issues can.
‘It helps to talk, and having, for example, a common vocabulary in all of the markets is useful for making sure that policymakers are on the same page, that they are talking about the same things, that they are able to deal with the same issues,’ said Prof. Walker Smith.
And while there are already well‐established international talks over the harmonisation of vehicle regulations at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, it’s the specific mix of academics and carmakers interested in automation that will be required to lay the foundations needed to bring self-driving cars to Europe’s roads.
‘I think the EU will be involved in a much more focused way and I think that’s good, that’s what we need,’ said Volvo’s Eugensson.
At current levels of technology, the term self-driving car can refer to a range of quite different vehicles.
Slow‐moving robotic pods are the closest to becoming a reality, and versions of these vehicles are already being tested under controlled conditions in Europe’s cities. They are relatively low‐risk as they move at speeds of around 20 kilometres per hour.
The next stage of automated cars is likely to be hybrid vehicles, where drivers will be able to hand over control once the car has reached ‘automation compliant’ roads, such as stretches of motorway that are equipped with the infrastructure needed to enable cars to monitor traffic conditions.
The final stage would be cars that can come and pick passengers up at home, and take them to their destination without any input. At current levels of technology, these are still relatively far in the future.
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