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There have been so many developments in recent years in the automotive industry that the idea of fully driverless cars on our roads no longer seems far-fetched. However it seems there is confusion around the technology which is currently in use. 

The technology available to cars on the road at the moment is known as ‘Level 2’ which means that a driver is required to keep their hands on the steering wheel.   A fully autonomous car would be ‘Level 5’ and so we are still a long way away from this.  This is highlighted by the fact that Uber have just called a halt to their self driving car test programme in Arizona as one of their cars killed a pedestrian.

However many cars on the market now are able to brake, steer, or park themselves but recent press stories have highlighted a possible misunderstanding between fully autonomous driverless cars and those simply offering driver assistance technology.  Cars with driver assistance are ‘level 2’ and so a driver is still required and they must keep their hands firmly on the wheel. Unfortunately this instruction does not appear to have been acted on by some users.  In one particularly concerning incident, a Tesla driver in Nottingham was prosecuted for climbing into the passenger seat of his car while it was travelling at 40mph.

Luckily no one was harmed in that incident, however Tesla’s Autopilot system has been involved in a number of crashes, including two which were fatal.   The name of the Autopilot system itself has received criticism for misleading consumers.  Mercedes have also been implicated in the controversy, after they had to withdraw adverts promoting their E-Class as a ‘self driving car’.

Car manufacturers now say they are trying to give clearer warnings that attentive drivers are still required, however safety experts still believe they should take more responsibility to ensure consumers do not make dangerous mistakes.  There have been suggestions that cars with driver assistance technology should have cameras to monitor drivers as at the end of the day, they will be the ones held legally responsible for any harm done.

As technology continues to develop, it remains to be seen what will happen in the future.  However automated driving technology does have a number of safety benefits, such as emergency braking and pedestrian detection systems.   The car industry just needs to ensure this helpful technology is used correctly and not abused.

Blog by Claire Campbell, Solicitor

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