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Inside the industry: Self-driving tech is beset with difficulties

Perhaps the most complex challenge facing the car industry today is vehicle autonomy, the path to achieving it and the motivations for doing so.

To most, the end goal isn’t in question; a utopia of zero accidents is too compelling for legislators to ignore and the rewards of success (this is an industry estimated to be worth £5.5 trillion by 2050 by the admittedly invested Intel) too great to be overlooked by established firms or disruptors.

While some of the tech is there or thereabouts now, that in itself is part of the problem: unless it delivers perfection, autonomous tech is fallible, just like human beings, and thereby open to all sorts of moral, emotional and legal challenges.

Supporters will point out that today’s optimistically labelled ‘self-driving’ tech has already proved its value, with accidents occurring far less than when people drive unaided. This is a line that Tesla boss Elon Musk has espoused before, although his data was challenged.

Others will suggest that the cost in terms of injury and death is worth it in the short term in order to advance the tech faster for the long-term. It’s a logical argument but no comfort to the parents of a child killed by a computer’s failure.

To degrees, many new-car drivers already experience autonomous tech’s abilities when they use adaptive cruise control or lane-keeping assistance. While these often make for a jerky and unsettled drive, they can on a good day get you from London to Wales on the M4 with scarcely an input.

Tech that works in ideal conditions is all well and good, but what happens when it’s impaired, say by the weather or dirt? Or when something unpredictable happens ahead and the car is moving at 70mph? Can a computer really read the scenario as a human can?

And even if it can, how should it react? Will brands with safety at their heart programme their tech to be warier than those that prioritise driving thrills? For instance, would a Volvo pull up at the first sign of trouble but a BMW wait a moment longer? If they all offer the same thing, why choose one over another?

And then there are the issues of who is at fault if it does go wrong. The tech developer who created the systems, the car maker who sold the tech or the driver who elected to switch it off or on? Or do insurers have to carry the can, even during the transitional stage when some cars might run the systems and others won’t?

As the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But as with flying cars, there’s always the risk that ambition and reality don’t mix.

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