Driverless cars; where do we stand in Ireland?
The short, sharp answer to the above question is… no. No, we’re not. In fact, we’re not even close. As it stands, the legislation in Ireland does not allow for the driving of fully autonomous cars on our roads at all. Now, that shouldn’t panic anyone who’s recently bought, for instance, a Volvo XC90 with ‘Pilot Assist’ or a BMW or Mercedes with the driver assistance systems fitted to those cars. These aren’t robotic or ‘self-driving’ cars (no matter what some of the less well informed publications may say) — they simply have glorified cruise control, and while you can occasionally take your hands off the wheel, it’s still you that’s in control of and responsible for the car's movements.
If you ask the Department of Transport about autonomous or robotic driving, you’ll get the following response: “The law at present does not provide for driverless cars - there is a presumption that someone must be driving a mechanically propelled vehicle. Technology in this area is advancing at a rapid rate, however the Department does not believe that it has yet reached a stage where legislation is appropriate. Any testing of driverless cars in this jurisdiction would therefore have to be on private land rather than on public roads. The Department will continue to monitor the development of this technology and how it is being managed in other jurisdictions. The Department will consider legislating as and when the technology reaches such a point that legislation is appropriate.”
Well, there are certainly those who say that the appropriate point is now. Ireland is bursting at the seams with companies that are at the cutting edge of research into autonomous cars, including IBM’s research lab in Dublin, and the Galway-based offices of global vehicle components and supply giant Valeo. While robot cars are currently banned from our roads, there is unquestionably much research being done on those same cars in Irish offices and laboratories. And universities too — UCD, Trinity, NUI Galway and Waterford Institute of Technology all have fingers in the robot car pie.
There is a high-level group, within the European Commission, called GEAR 2030, which is working towards introducing Europe-wide legislation for autonomous cars by that year, but surely we shouldn’t be sitting around on our hands until then? Both the US and UK have shown a willingness to allow testing of robotic cars on public roads (and that testing is vital if the technology is ever to be perfected) and big tech firms such as Google, Lyft, Uber and others have flocked to the states and countries that are encouraging autonomous testing.
It’s not just a matter of trying to snag some high-tech dollars either. We really should be looking at carefully crafting legislation for autonomous vehicles, not least because the earliest self-driving cars are unlikely to be cars, but will probably actually be trucks. Using self-driving for trucks makes huge sense in terms of reducing driver fatigue and reducing accidents, but do we want employment in our haulage industry wiped out overnight? Again, this is an area in which other countries, including the UK, are well ahead. Christian Labrot, President, International Road Transport Union (IRU), has said that “autonomous trucks will bring many benefits to society, from cost savings and lower emissions to safer roads. Autonomous vehicles will also help the haulage sector deal with the current shortage of drivers in many parts of the world. However, we have to remember the dedicated drivers of today will need to be retrained tomorrow, and we must keep attracting professionals into road transport. We all need to work together for a smooth transition to driverless technology.” So autonomous driving legislation isn’t just about safety, and not just about insurance liability, it’s about workers’ rights too.
The sad fact of the matter is that, as a country that claims to be a haven for high-tech investment, an English-speaking gateway to Europe for multi-nationals, and a nation with one of the best-educated workforces in the world, we’re lagging badly behind when it comes to recognising the needs of autonomous cars. Just as an example, take road signage. Clear, consistent signage is absolutely vital for robotic cars, as signs make up a crucial part of how they read and understand the world around them. But, just a decade ago, Opel had to hold back the release of its traffic sign recognition camera in Ireland because our signage was inadequate and would confuse the system. Since when, it hasn’t improved much…
Not only that, but today, in 2017, our roads and the rules for using them are still essentially controlled by the Road Traffic Act of 1961. OK, so it has been updated and altered a bit over the years, but the core of the act was created at a time when the fastest cars in the world could reach 150mph at a push, and computers still used punch cards and occupied entire rooms. The world has changed dramatically since then, and nowhere more so than in motoring. If we don’t start looking at our statute books now, we’re going to get left behind.