Driverless cars will need ‘L-plates or flashing lights’ to combat widespread fear and distrust, report finds

Self-driving vehicles may need an aircraft-style black box recorder along with flashing lights or L-style plates if they are ever to win over the public, a government-backed study has found.

The vehicles have a long way to go to overcome public distrust, the study found, amid fears about safety.

But scientists who carried out the research believe that there are measures that can be taken to reconcile doubtful members of the public to seeing driverless vehicles sharing the roads with them.

Nearly nine out of 10 people in the UK want self-driving cars and other vehicles to be clearly labelled so they can be easily distinguished from human-driven motors, according to the report.

Meanwhile, 92 per cent agreed that in the event of a collision “all data must be made available to investigators”. Currently, self-driving vehicles companies are not necessarily compelled to share their crash data with investigators.

This is in contrast to the aviation sector, where black boxes – the key independent witnesses in air accident investigations – are compulsory in all aircraft and are widely accepted as crucial to determining the causes of crashes.

Overall, the report found that the public is uneasy about the prospect of autonomous vehicles, with 58 per cent uncomfortable with the idea of using them and 55 per cent worried about sharing a road with them – a level of opposition that hasn’t really shifted in the past five years of public surveys.

“Self-driving vehicles are often hyped as heralding a new transport revolution but there’s still a huge amount that needs to be worked out,” said Professor Jack Stilgoe, of University College London, who led the research.

“In the case of labels – at the moment it’s basically the wild west. Companies can do whatever they like, although some have chosen to chosen to write self-driving vehicle on the back of their car.

“Whether these things look much like L-plates, or flashing lights or whatever, still needs to be worked out.”

Researchers surveyed 4,860 members of the British public in late 2021 about their attitudes to self-driving vehicles.

The questions were created following interviews with 50 experts involved in developing the technology.

They found that the enthusiasm of the technology companies behind driverless cars was considerably greater than that of the public.

Researchers argue that this scepticism would not be resolved with better understanding of the technology but reflect real uncertainties that developers needed to address – starting by canvassing the concerns of the public and dealing with them.

The research revealed that the public is very keen to know what went wrong and why when there is an accident. Elaine Herzberg, 49, became the first person to be killed by a self-driving vehicle, as she wheeled a bicycle across the road in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018.

Motorists and pedestrians also want to see self-driving cars programmed to drive cautiously and to follow the rules of the road – even though 42 per cent agreed that human drivers sometimes needed to break the rules.

Concerns deepened after Tesla recalled nearly 54,000 cars and SUVs in the US in February because their “Full Self-Driving” software lets them roll through stop signs. ‘Rolling stop’ lets vehicles go through intersections with stop signs at up to 5.6mph. The feature was being tested by a number of drivers.

“There’s certainly a case to be made for showing if the vehicle is at a certain moment driving autonomously. It would need to be something that can show ‘on or off’ rather than permanent but also be visible from multiple angles,” said Keri Grieman, of the Alan Turing Institute in London, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence.

“If fully autonomous vehicles do become more of an everyday road feature it might be the case that they have unchangeable labelling, but we’re not quite there yet. Flashing lights do have the advantage of being visible but would seem visually disruptive. Perhaps an additional, unusual colour in the running lights – visible from both the front and back of the vehicle, turning on automatically when the human driver is not engaged would be the solution,” she said.

Dr Grieman added: “Accident investigation is incredibly important both to bettering self-driving vehicles and to building public trust. We have the potential to avoid having the same accident twice. This is an area where we can and really should learn from the aviation industry, where there’s a shared information culture around crash information: someone’s accident is everyone’s accident.”

She is one of the team working on the RoboTIPS project, which promotes the Ethical Black Box, or EBB, as a parallel to aviation black boxes – a data recorder of what information was held and how it affected a decision.

“Many vehicle manufacturers would have something similar, but the information has been argued to be proprietary. This not only holds back knowledge of the field, but makes accident investigation much more difficult,” she says.

Ethical black boxes are being tested on a variety of robots in both laboratory and simulated accident conditions with the aim of making it standard in all makes and applications, including self-driving vehicles.

Professor Alan Winfield, of the University of the West of England, Bristol, is leading the RoboTIPS project and also worked on the report.

He said: “I feel very strongly that we must have independent safety certification of SDV auto-pilot AIs. In my view it should be illegal to use an SDV in self driving mode without such certification. We certainly cannot and should not rely on the manufacturer’s assurances. Public safety requires the precautionary principle.

“Without such a label warning SDVs are a deception. If there’s a human in the driving seat then we will assume they are actually driving the vehicle. If they are not then other road users are being misled. I think the warning signal should be only activated when the self-driving mode has been activated, so that means some electronic signage. I guess something on the front and rear windscreens using colours that cannot be confused with brake lights or turning indicators.”

At the moment the use of self-driving vehicles is limited to a handful of projects around the world.

The situation is most advanced in the US, where in Phoenix, Arizona, Google’s former self-driving car project, Waymo, has hundreds, if not thousands, of cars on the road, he said.

And the self-driving company Cruise now covers much of San Francisco.

Elsewhere, where driverless cars are used around the world they tend to be in tests, trials and demonstrations.

In the UK, driverless vehicles are only allowed with special permission for scientific research.

The London-based autonomous startup, Wayve, is at the forefront and is currently trialling driverless vehicles using AI across the UK in a number of pilots, including with Ocado and Asda.

“We teach our cars to drive much like you would learn to drive…we show the car hours and hours of video driving experience and it learns how the world behaves, how things interact and ultimately to safely drive itself from that experience. So it’s really similar to how a human learns, teaching through data, experience and machine learning,” Wayve co-founder and chief executive Alex Kendal said in December.

He added: “For the first time, we will see machines we trust physically interacting with our world, enriching people’s lives, freeing them to focus on what matters most. This will mark the beginning of a new era of technology that promises to be more transformative than any that came before it.

“We are excited to be pioneering the embodied intelligence to build autonomous technology that can adapt to the needs of people worldwide – starting with driving on roads.”

The survey was part of a three-year project, entitled “Driverless Futures?”, which involved researchers from UCL, UWE Bristol and City, University of London and was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

The research in more detail:

• Transparency: Nine out of 10 people (92 per cent) agreed that in the event of a collision “all data must be made available to investigators”. Currently, self-driving vehicle companies are not necessarily compelled to share their crash data with investigators. This is in contrast to the aviation sector, where black boxes – the key independent witnesses in air accident investigations – are compulsory in all aircraft

• High safety standards: 61 per cent of survey respondents supported a high safety bar, agreeing that self-driving vehicles should be “Much safer than the safest human driver”, or “Never causing a serious collision”

• Labelling: 86 per cent of survey respondents agreed that self-driving vehicles should be clearly identified.

Among the other findings, the survey highlighted a preference among the UK public for self-driving public transport compared to other self-driving vehicles. This is in contrast to how self-driving vehicles are being developed, with developers focusing primarily on cars.

A majority of respondents said self-driving shuttle buses (62 per cent) and delivery pods (54 per cent), while fewer respondents said that self-driving taxis, private cars, car clubs and lorries would be useful (43 per cent, 42 per cent, 37 per cent, 33 per cent).

The survey also suggested a degree of cynicism, the researchers said, with 73 per cent of respondents agreeing that self-driving vehicle developers would benefit most from the new technology. Only 13 per cent agreed that poor people would benefit more from the technology than rich people.

An overwhelming majority of respondents said self-driving vehicles should be programmed to drive cautiously and to follow the rules of the road (whereas 42 per cent agreed that human drivers sometimes needed to break the rules).

Some survey responses suggested support for infrastructure change to accommodate self-driving vehicles.

A sizeable proportion (49 per cent) agreed that: “We should standardise the driving environment internationally, to make it easier for SDVs to work everywhere” (17 per cent disagreeing), while 46 per cent agreed that “Zebra crossings should be converted to traffic light crossings to make it easier for SDVs” (29 per cent disagreeing).

However, other responses suggested a resistance to changes to the driving environment. Seventy per cent of respondents agreed that self-driving vehicles “will need to ‘understand’ the intentions of people at the side of the road when negotiating zebra crossings”, while 51 per cent agreed that pedestrians will “want to communicate with the self-driving vehicle just as they do with human drivers”.

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