Autonomous cars – embracing change

Posted on: December 17th, 2015

In 1894, when horse drawn carriages were all the rage, The Times newspaper predicted that by 1944 every street in London would be “buried under nine feet of manure.” That prediction looked rather quaint in the subsequent years of air pollution and mass road casualties so, over a century later in 2015, can we do any better forecasting the future of personal transport?

The autonomous car

Previously a thing of cartoons and science fiction movies, the self driving car is fast becoming a reality. In California, major tech corporations are pouring money into what you might almost think was a new arms race, each striking out in a different direction. For Tesla, the way forward is software as it builds on its current ability to update the 90,000 cars it already has on the road wirelessly and over night. Meanwhile Google is focusing on hardware, removing the very things that make a car a car – the steering wheel and pedals – leaving passengers in a moving pod.

Legal road blocks

With new technologies, come barriers. We are already used to tech companies suing one another as they try to protect their ideas and stem the growth of their rivals;  doing so in a familiar framework of patent and contractual disputes. The unique challenge with autonomous cars is that many of the legal and ethical issues are yet to be settled:

  • Should autonomous cars continue to have a driver?
  • Should there be age, capacity, or other restrictions on who can use an autonomous vehicle?
  • Who is liable for a crash where there is no driver?
  • If a child runs into the road, should the car be programmed to swerve and kill any passengers or just carry on regardless? Are we even capable of programming cars adequately (supporters of military weapon drones, take note)?

Outdated legislation is struggling to answer entirely new legal questions, with companies having to proceed in the hope that the law will catch up with their technology. The battleground is not in the courtroom but in the heart of the legislative process, with lobbyists rather than lawyers being relied upon to champion the changes needed to allow autonomous cars to take their place on our roads.

Room to grow in the UK

The 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic requires every moving vehicle to have a driver. It was ratified by 73 countries, but the UK was not one of them. This means that the UK has the opportunity to become a focal point for the testing and creation of autonomous cars in Europe and it appears that Chancellor George Osborne is well aware of that.  

In the Autumn 2014 Statement, Osborne announced he was increasing the amount spent on research in the field to £19,000,000 and subsequently, in the Spring 2015 Statement, increased this to £100,000,000.

This funding isn’t aimed to support the growth of ideas by the likes of Google and Tesla, but to support home grown projects from businesses of all sizes. Already in the UK we are seeing projects taking advantage of this funding:

  • Atkins as part of the VENTURER consortium is trialling autonomous vehicles in the Bristol and South Gloucestershire council areas to explore the feasibility of driverless cars in the UK. The trial is being funded by Innovate UK to investigate the legal and insurance aspects of the new technology and explore how the public react to such vehicles; and
  • GATEway is an £8 million project funded by industry and Innovate UK and led by TRL. Based in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London, comprising a team of leading companies and academic institutions.

World changer and money maker

With space for growth, and funding from the government, there is a chance for businesses of all sizes to take advantage of this new industry, creating new ideas and producing wealth for themselves and the UK.

As part of that it is important that no matter what size a business is, whether a start-up or well established, that it looks to protect its ideas. It is all too easy to get carried away on projects for life changing technology and in the process lose ownership of the very things you helped create. As such it is important that legal advice is sort to protect the intellectual property created and to make sure, if it is used by others, it is used in recognition of its creator.

For small start up businesses, a lawyer is often the last person you want to consult, but it could mean the difference between owning a £1,000,000,000 idea and letting it slip. Trademarks, copyrights, patents, and licensing agreements all seem onerous at the time but they are always cheaper than fighting it out in court down the line because your idea wasn’t secured at the start.

Another fad or the future?

According to the World Health Organisation’s most recent report, over 1,240,000 people die each year due to road traffic accidents and, as traditionally poorer nations develop, the number of cars on the road rise and the deaths proliferate. Autonomous cars and, along with them, smarter roads are thought by many experts to be the answer to this depressing statistic. It is also seen as the answer to congestion problems and over crowded roads. Less accidents and cars working in unison with each other mean freer flowing traffic enabling passengers to get to work quicker as well as more safely.

In 1894, when The Times made their prediction, they had no idea of the importance that the motorcar would come to have to mankind. We can’t be sure what the coming years will bring, but perhaps it is a fair bet that we’ll still live in a world with cars, even though it may well be a world where we no longer drive. 

If you would like to speak to someone at Coffin Mew about Intellectual Property Rights or about our First Call plan for start up businesses, please contact our Commercial team on 023 8033 4661.