Autonomous driving

Driverless cars in need of legal brakes

The death of a female pedestrian in the United States highlights the testing road ahead for autonomous vehicles, and Hong Kong would be wise to devise a regulatory system for such transport

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 7:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 7:39am

The death of a female pedestrian hit by a self-driving car in Tempe, in the US state of Arizona, is a wake-up call that driverless technology may be getting ahead of itself.

It came as local experts urged Hong Kong authorities to clarify “drivers’ liabilities” behind the wheel of an automated vehicle versus those of a manufacturer of an automated system. Automotive and technology giants around the world, from General Motors to Ford to Tesla to Google, have jumped into the race not to be left behind with big investments in the hot sector.

Ride-hailing firm Uber has been seeking tie-ups with global carmakers to produce driverless vehicles using its own autonomous software and mapping systems.

Now Uber says it is suspending self-driving car tests in all US cities after the 49-year-old woman was hit and killed as she crossed the street. Japanese multinational Toyota has also suspended tests in the United States out of concern the emotional effect the fatal accident may have on its test drivers.

While they have been involved in multiple accidents, it is thought to be the first time an autonomous car has been involved in a fatal collision.

Beijing goes ahead with self-driving cars as US reviews safety after Uber crash

Police said the accident happened at night while the car was in autonomous mode, although it had a human monitor behind the wheel. The woman had not been using a pedestrian crossing.

Driverless cars are often touted as the future of the industry and a way to reduce accidents. Jurisdictions around the world are allowing testing or making preparations. Former US transport secretary Anthony Foxx called on Washington to put a high priority on safety.

In Hong Kong, government Transport Advisory Committee member Wesley Wan Wai-hei urged officials to study latest developments so they could formulate policies appropriate to the future market.

Last year the government rejected a request to test the city’s first driverless car, developed by University of Science and Technology researchers. The car was later tested on the mainland.

To be sure, testing self-driving technology in Hong Kong, with its complex environment and heavy pedestrian and vehicular traffic, presents a challenge. But that is all the more reason to prepare a sound regulatory environment for it.