Caution: Innovation racing ahead of regulations as self-drive cars capture the attention of drivers in Hong Kong and elsewhere

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 1:50am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 1:50am

Technology has a habit of always being a step or two ahead of regulation. The boundaries are forever being pushed with innovations using the internet and mobile communications, creating concerns about security and privacy. Vehicles fitted with software that takes navigation out of the hands of drivers raise the important matter of safety. Hong Kong authorities have to keep the sharpest possible eye on developments to ensure roads are as safe as possible.

The Transport Department has wisely been quick to raise concerns over a downloadable software update for Tesla Model S cars that allows for "hands-free" driving. Through radar, cameras and sensors fitted to the vehicle, the "auto-pilot" feature lets it automatically change lanes, steer between road markings, move with traffic flow and park. Although the company has stressed the software is supposed to be only used on highways and roads that are clearly marked and drivers should keep their hands on the wheel at all times, videos posted online reveal how it can be abused; some show those driving reading newspapers or playing hand-held games. The firm has been advised that authorities have to first approve changes, while police have reminded motorists about road rules.

Carmakers are arguably at the forefront of the technology revolution. Competition is driving production of vehicles that are increasingly easier to drive and are ever-more fuel-efficient or have no polluting emissions through being fully electric. The leading high-tech firms Google and Apple are among companies racing to make cars that are self-drive; Google's test models have just stop and go controls and no steering wheel or accelerator and brake pedals. Launch dates are years away, but the aim is to speed up travel and eliminate accidents and the need for driving knowledge and skills.

Many latest-model cars already have features that automate aspects of driving. Software and hardware can take over when braking is necessary, if a vehicle gets too close to the one ahead or during parking. The drafters of Hong Kong's road regulations and the lawmakers who approved them could not have predicted such innovations nor the ones that will follow. Liability and insurance are among matters to be considered should there be an accident as a result of driver misuse, defective or faulty products or deliberate misrepresentation of capabilities by manufacturers. Until these issues can be resolved, there is every reason for authorities to be cautious.