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‘Robot cars’ are coming. How can we make sure they’re safe?

“Connected vehicles” also raise fears of hacking, and cars being remotely controlled by unscrupulous individuals or organizations. A good example is the recent movie, Leave the World Behind, which features a scene in which hundreds of electric cars are hacked, causing them to smash into each other on a New York highway. 

Nevertheless, the industry is forging ahead with plans to introduce increasing levels of autonomy in the latest car models, and the UN is at the heart of those discussions, which involve governments and the transport industry, aimed at developing international regulations and guidelines governing automated driving. 

Francois Guichard is the lead UN official on Intelligent Transport Systems and Automated Driving, and secretary of the Working Party on Automated/Autonomous and Connected Vehicles. He told Conor Lennon from UN News that the hype surrounding the arrival of driverless cars has always outpaced the reality.

Francois Guichard: Almost a decade ago, people were announcing that truly driverless cars would be on the road within four years. However, it turned out to be much more complex than that. At the UN we began calling for international cooperation on the subject back in 2015, and now we convene discussions with authorities and vehicle manufacturers, and develop global rules for these vehicles.

Autonomous vehicle on the streets of San Fransisco, USA.
© Unsplash/Timo Wielink

Autonomous vehicle on the streets of San Fransisco, USA.

UN News: Can you envisage a future in which cars are mostly autonomous?

We want to create a safety-first environment and we hope that, with technical progress, automated technologies will lead to roads that are much safer. For context, there are around 1.3 million road fatalities, globally, every year: that constitutes a road safety crisis.

It’s a step-by-step progress. The car industry has defined different levels of automation, from zero (no automation) to five, which is full automation, meaning that a system controls the vehicle under all conditions. Today, many countries have cars with level two technologies, in which the driver is in control, with some assistance. We’re beginning to see some level three technologies in some cars, where there is more autonomy in traffic jams and on motorways.

The next step will be vehicles which are able to drive completely autonomously, under limited circumstances, and we’re already starting to see this happening. 

This year, we are developing global technical regulations for automated driving systems. The industry says its ready for this, so we hope it will happen, because we have so many challenges to tackle: aside from the road safety crisis, transport makes a huge impact on the environment, and we have to mitigate that effect with support from the technology.

UN News: What can be done to minimize the threat of hackers endangering connected cars and endangering our safety?

This is a very serious issue, and there is a risk with every new vehicle. That is basically the reason why this Working Party adopted technical regulations for cyber security back in 2020. Some countries are now mandating these regulations, so the industry is getting ready. The regulations are there to make sure that all processes are in place and that in case of an issue, we have the means to react. 

This discussion is taken from the latest episode of the UN’s flagship news podcast, The Lid Is On, which covers the various ways that the UN is involved in global efforts to make AI, and other forms of online technology safer.

You can listen to (and now watch!) The Lid Is On, on all major podcast platforms. 

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