Driverless cars: hype vs reality

Is our perception of the future of hands-free driving way off track?

With some of the world’s most well-known companies and national governments increasing their investment in driverless car technology, you'd be forgiven for thinking they'll be coming to a street or motorway near you in the very near future. Even the Queen referred to autonomous vehicles in her address at this year’s State Opening of Parliament!

But despite the hype and headlines, few of us have had a chance to experience, or even see, a driverless car in real life. This lack of hands on, or rather ‘hands off’, experience has resulted in mixed reactions, with some surveys and interviews showing people responding to the technology with shock and horror.

What's driving the hype?

  • £18m

    approx. invested by the UK government

  • 2017

    Volvo planning the biggest trial of automated vehicles in Gothenburg, Sweden next year

  • 5%

    Most cars only used 5% of the time

Test driving the general public

To allay concerns, some governments and local councils are taking driverless cars to the public to gauge people’s reactions to the technology.

One great example is the GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) project in London, where driverless pods are being testing as part of a wider aim to bring driverless cars to all parts of London.

GATEway driverless car being takes a drive around North Greenwich as part of a trial to see how the general public reacts. Play video
Join Kenny Leitch for a ride around North Greenwich in London's first driverless car.

Correction: Kenny's reference to the driverless vehicles running in Greenwich (00:01:40) over the summer of 2016 is incorrect. Exact trial dates have yet to be announced. 



So what are the most common misconceptions people have about driverless cars? Here are a few of the most common:

Driverless cars taking over our motorways are only a few years away.

Reality: It’s going to be a long time before driverless cars become the norm. While Google’s driverless vehicles have already been making an appearance on a limited number of public roads in the US, a number of things need to happen before driverless cars will become commonplace roads and motorways—drafting and passing appropriate new legislation, for one.

Given the newness, complexity and continually changing nature of driverless car technology, this is no small challenge. In the UK, the Department of Transport is already on the case, but even when new laws are unveiled, initially, they’re likely to apply to only the testing of driverless vehicles. Then further legislation will be needed to govern wider use.

Traffic accident statistics

  • 1.2m

    deaths per year from traffic accidents

  • Over 90%

    of all traffic accidents have some degree of human error behind them

  • 75%

    of all traffic accidents are solely down to human error

  • 1

    Google Car 'at fault' accident in 1.5 million miles driven

Myth: Driverless cars will cause chaos on the roads

Reality: The majority of accidents are caused by human error. Widespread use of driverless cars shows potential to significantly reduce, and maybe even eliminate, accidents.

A recent Google car crash made the headlines for being the first in which the car itself was deemed to be at fault. Although no one was injured it led many to speculate that the technology wasn’t ready to be made available to the public.

But let’s place the incident context. It was Google's first ‘at-fault’ accident in approximately 1.5 million miles, which is well below the average accident rate for non-autonomous vehicles.

The other accidents involving Google’s driverless cars have all been attributed to human error, which has prompted experts to explore the extent to which the novelty of encountering driverless cars on the road could alter other drivers’ behaviour.

Taking time to monitor people’s reactions to driverless cars is another reason for the technology to be introduced gradually. Creating ‘closed loops’ for autonomous vehicles, like the GATEway project is one way to learn more about how driverless cars can be further adapted to operate safely, but also effectively, around pedestrians and other traffic.

“Tech like driverless cars has huge potential to transform isolated or less mobile populations be more independent.”

Quote author RSA

We’ll go straight from ‘traditional’ driving to completely automated driving

Reality: The transition to fully-autonomous driving will be a gradual process. But it's also a process that is well underway. Many cars coming off production lines today have approved, autonomous, safety features like electronic stability control and emergency autonomous braking as standard.

It’s quite possible that driverless cars, when available to the public, will have the option to switch certain autonomous features on or off so that drivers can decide how much automation they’re comfortable with.

Myth: Driverless cars will only catch on with younger, tech-savvy generations

Reality: Less mobile and isolated populations stand to benefit most from driverless car technology. 

While the more tech-savvy among us might be expected to be the early adopters, in fact the elderly and people with mobility issues could benefit most from autonomous vehicles.

Driverless cars will help these groups be more independent by helping them access places they may currently rely on other people to take them to.

In addition, many local councils are already thinking about how autonomous vehicles could boost the public transport services they provide. For example, the GATEway pods in North Greenwich are being evaluated as a possible ‘last-mile’ solution linking tube, rail and bus stations with carparks and shopping areas.

Driverless cars & insurance

  • 25-30%

    of RSA’s global business lies in motor insurance

  • £15bn

    per year annual turnover of the UK motor insurance industry

  • 1 of 12

    RSA is one of 12 organisations involved in the GATEway Project

What is the role of insurers in developing driverless car technology?

Driverless car technology is ultimately about creating vehicles that don’t crash, or if they do crash, the damage to vehicle and driver is significantly reduced.

That’s a big strategic challenge for motor insurers like us, but it also presents big opportunities. By being the only insurer involved in the GATEWAY project, RSA is getting to see first-hand how the technology, industry and public perception is changing, which is essential to us being able to create the right products for our customers in the future.