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Expert Reaction: Safety of self-driving cars under question

Posted on 19 March 2018

A self-driving car hit and killed a woman on a road in Arizona this week. Professor John McDermid, from the University of York's Department of Computer Science, discusses the issues around the safety of autonomous systems:

The legislation on driverless cars has not caught up with the technology

“In principle a driverless car should always be monitoring pedestrian behaviour, even trying to predict it, so it can avoid an accident. This should happen even when the pedestrians are not using marked crossings. 

“One of the main problems is that we do not have good frameworks for assessing safety of such systems, especially where they are learning.

"Accidents are a reminder that the safety processes need to catch-up with the technology. In the US, individual states have introduced laws, but they vary from state to state.

"In the UK there has been agreement for testing in a number of areas of the UK, and more is planned. The Department for Transport is considering regulatory changes. In general, however, the technology is ahead of the legislation. 

'Black box'

"More needs to be done to ensure that accidents and incidents are reported and analysed so we can learn from experience and improve safety, as has been done in aviation. 

“There are no 'black boxes' in driverless cars to help us understand when things go wrong, but some manufacturers have included such systems in their development vehicles. 

"Work is needed to define what information should be collected to aid accident and incident investigation, especially where systems learn in operation. This is an area where regulators need to co-operate to produce consistent standards to apply to all classes of vehicle.”

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