Safety fears over UK's driverless car trials in wake of US death


Safety fears have been raised over the development of driverless cars in the UK after the first known fatal crash involving a self-driving vehicle in the US.

The driver of a Tesla car was killed in Florida after colliding with a lorry which had turned in front of him.

Preliminary reports suggest his car's cameras did not distinguish the white side of the trailer from the bright sky, meaning the brakes were not activated.

UK trials of automated and driverless cars are currently taking place in Bristol, Greenwich, Milton Keynes and Coventry.

In the Queen's Speech in May it was announced that a Modern Transport Bill would include legislation to support the country becoming a world leader in driverless car technology.

AA president Edmund King claimed the accident in the US is a reminder that "driverless cars aren't fool proof in the real world".

He told the Press Association that technology "can and will enhance safety", but went on: "We need more research into the interactions between driverless cars and driver-driven vehicles before we allow all drivers to take their hands off the wheel."

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at road safety charity IAM Roadsmart, said: "This tragic incident appears to be an early example of the problems caused by relying on driverless systems when very few vehicles have them.

"The Tesla system arrives in the car through overnight software updates with no training offered which is clearly dangerous. With new UK legislation designed to encourage autonomous cars expected soon it is vital we have an open debate on the safest way to manage new technology and drivers' ability to use it."

US road safety officials are investigating Tesla's autopilot feature following the fatal crash, which occurred on May 7 and led to the death of Joshua Brown, 40.

The system changes lanes and speeds up or slows down a car based on what other vehicles are doing.

Tesla said the death in the US was the first known fatality in over 130 million miles of autopilot operation.

It accepted that the system is "not perfect" and "still requires the driver to remain alert" with both hands on the wheel at all times

Jim Holder, editorial director of magazines Autocar and What Car?, said this type of technology is not expected to completely eradicate accidents.

"Autopilot is a driver aid, not a fully autonomous function, and the driver is still supposed to be in charge of the vehicle and aware of their surroundings," he commented.

"It is to be expected that collisions will still happen, and that depending on the nature of them they could be significant.

"The time when fully autonomous cars are on our roads is still 10-15 years away - and then the challenge will be to replace all existing cars with ones that can communicate."

Mr Holder added that the autopilot system "has worked well prior to this".

He said: "Tesla points out that its cars have travelled 130 million miles prior to the accident, whereas a fatality typically occurs every 94 million miles driven on US roads or 60 million driven on the world's roads."