James Camilleri

Legal Officer, PKF Malta

James Camilleri is a Legal Officer at PKF Malta

Are Self-Driving Cars Going Anywhere?

Thursday 07th February 2019

What appeared to be science-fiction not so long ago is becoming reality with the advent of self-driving vehicles. These vehicles are no longer being confined to the realms of imagination but are currently being implemented on an experimental basis and eventually on a commercial basis. These sudden strides in technology could leave lawmakers grappling to catch up. Instead of reacting to the rise in the market of a destabilising technology, it is in the lawmakers' interest to be proactive and anticipate the onset of a new ground-breaking technological advancement.

As things stand so far, innovation has not yet reached the level of releasing a self-driving car that is legally fully autonomous. This is not surprising, considering the relatively recent breakthroughs in this technology. However, there are vehicles presently available on the market that are partially-autonomous, with the level of autonomy varying across a spectrum of capabilities. One thing which is unique about self-driving technology is how an innovation that has relatively speaking just hit the market is experiencing an impressive surge in popularity, that could over only a few years shake the grounds of the transportation system as we have known it for centuries.

The leading innovators that are currently dominating the scene are most notably Google, Uber and Tesla, but a number of other major car manufacturers are also intent on not missing out on the self-driving vehicles’ potential. The foundations of self-driving cars consist of the application of an internal map reflecting the surroundings of the vehicle, collected by means of a series of sensors, such as laser beams, radar, cameras, and sonar. Apart from the hardware aspect, it is then the role of software technology to interpret all the varying data being inputted by these numerous sensing devices, which in turn is passed on to the vehicle's mechanical parts, such as acceleration, brakes, and steering. The latest innovations that have greatly contributed to the realisation of a self-driving car are hard-coded programmes like obstacle avoidance algorithms, predictive modelling, and object discrimination.

There are some major ground-breaking socio-economic factors that come along with self-driving cars. The issue of safety is the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately, many people die each year from vehicle-related accidents. In the hypothetical event of creating reliable self-driving cars, the number of deaths on the roads caused by human error could be eliminated. Furthermore, the self-driving systems could open new mobility horizons for those individuals that are incapable of driving a car, as may be the case for disabled or elderly persons.

However, it is also true that every major technological breakthrough brings about destabilising changes of a negative nature, at least in the short-run. What was previously a manual task that only a human being could perform is suddenly being streamlined towards technological devices, so the need for people to perform those tasks as a means of employment will decrease, causing a shift in the workforce. A final concern is the environmental impact. If individuals previously unable or reluctant to travel by car are given the opportunity to do so, this will increase the total number of people using cars as a means of transport.

It can be foreseen that self-driving cars will gradually infiltrate the market and ultimately transform it. At which point they will become legally fully-autonomous is more difficult to predict; however, just as partially-autonomous vehicles until recently sounded like an impossibility, so will the strides in technology eventually reach another milestone.