driverless cars

Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill: no plans to ban human drivers, hacking fears raised

In a parliamentary debate over the ‘Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill’, the government has moved to downplay fears that human drivers will eventually be banned due to the advent of driverless cars but has raised concerns that the technology could provide a new avenue for terrorists to commit atrocities.

Transport minister John Hayes said it would be “intolerable” to imagine a future where people were not allowed to use classic cars or other more modern vehicles.

He added that the policy of Theresa May’s administration is not to seek to introduce a ban on human drivers, telling the Commons that automated vehicles are not a “threat” but an opportunity.

The technology will give more people the chance to own a car, including partially-sighted and blind people, Hayes said.

MPs also raised concerns over the morality of driverless software and the possibility that terrorists could hack into autonomous cars in order to cause crashes or kill their passengers.

Labour MP Geraint Davies said: “Has the government considered that the automation may require the software to make moral decisions?

“By way of example, if a car is hurtling down a road and some children go onto the road and the only option is to go headlong into a lorry, would the software perhaps say ‘okay, only the driver will die in this instance, but the children then’.

“Has he considered these moral aspects?”

In reply, transport minister Hayes said: “The research and development work that I studied in some detail this morning is looking at tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of scenarios, and getting software that’s capable of anticipating all of the variables that drivers might encounter is exactly the process which those who are developing these products are now engaged in.

“It is complex and it is challenging, but frankly it is going to happen.”

Davies later pressed shadow transport minister Karl Turner on the issue of hacking.

“I wanted to ask whether he felt there was any risk at all of any intervention to the software by someone malicious, even terrorists, to make some of these automated devices dangerous.”

Turner replied: “He makes a very valid point, and it’s a point that I know through my discussions with the minister that the government are considering and taking very seriously.”

Technology companies are already taking this threat seriously. Nvidia’s latest driverless chipset will include an ‘AI nanny’ that will constantly assess how different elements of the car are operating in order to detect whether unusual behaviour could indicate a hack. 

At the debate Hayes also said that he is willing to hold talks with the Department for Communities and Local Government about a suggestion to change the planning rules to make it a requirement that housing developers install electric vehicle charging points on all roads of a new project.

Labour MP Helen Goodman floated the idea alongside calls to require charging points to be installed at railway stations and publicly-owned car parks.

Hayes replied: “I think that’s a very good point. I’ll happily have discussions with my colleagues in DCLG.

“There are issues about the inconsistent provision of on-street charging.

“That is partly due to planning and partly due to the fact that some local authorities are more willing to install charging points than others - that’s a discretionary matter for planners at the moment.

“It does seem to me to be entirely appropriate to consider some of the things you have suggested so I’m more than happy to have those discussions.”

The draft regulations already included proposals that petrol stations should be made to install electric vehicle charging stations.

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