27 October 2016
China Vanke, a mainland property developer, has designed its own driverless vehicle, seen being tested in Dongguan, Guangdong province. Photo: Reuters
China Vanke, a mainland property developer, has designed its own driverless vehicle, seen being tested in Dongguan, Guangdong province. Photo: Reuters

Driverless cars in Asia – the challenges to overcome

Driverless cars are a hot topic at the moment.

And rightly so. Driverless cars are a disruptive technology that will have huge consequences for society. 

We can expect them to have an impact on existing transport business models and revenue streams (as Uber has for taxis), and eventually to lead to a wholesale rewriting of traffic laws, insurance provisions and supply chain relationships.

We’re already getting a taste of what issues driverless cars present.

On Valentine’s Day this year, one of Google Inc.’s autonomous vehicles was involved in an accident for the first time, as it tried to pull out into slow-moving traffic ahead of a bus.

Putting aside the impressive fact that this is the first such incident, which is a testament to the strengths of the underlying technology, we need to start thinking of how driverless cars will shape the future of transport.

Singapore and China are investing heavily in driverless car tech, but Hong Kong lags behind, despite the popularity of Tesla cars here (the carmaker’s chief executive, Elon Musk, recently told a Hong Kong audience he expects the city to be the “leader of the world” in adopting another advanced type of vehicle, electric cars).

Tesla did previously have software enabled in Hong Kong that allowed the cars to work without drivers, but this was quickly outlawed.

As usual, the law is playing a slow game of catch up with technology.

Meanwhile, mainland search giant Baidu Inc., heavily backed by China, is developing driverless vehicles and has said it will launch them before Google.

In late 2014, Baidu entered into a partnership with BMW AG, with the goal of developing a semi-autonomous vehicle and having driverless cars in 10 Chinese cities within three years.

Baidu has reportedly made several presentations to President Xi Jinping on the merits of autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

As far back as 2011, the Hongqi HQ3 driverless car, jointly developed by China’s FAW Group and the National University of Defense Technology made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Changsha, Hunan province, to Wuhan, Hubei province, demonstrating not only that it could stay on the road (at least during the day and in fair weather), but that it could navigate highway traffic at an average speed of 87 km/h, even passing other cars on the road.

Anyone who has driven in China will appreciate just how revolutionary and impressive this is.

So the technology is pretty much there – now the remaining obstacles to widespread use of driverless cars are social, political and regulatory.

For example, at the moment, there is no consistent national policy in China.

Since the Road Safety Law applies only to normal vehicles, driverless cars cannot be registered in the mainland and therefore cannot legally operate on the road there.

There is also the fact that China still has an abnormally high level of road accidents, which sparks an important debate.

If you are run over by a driverless car, who is to blame? Who do you sue? Who is subject to criminal sanctions for dangerous driving? Who should be buying insurance?

At present, liability lies almost always with the driver, with 94 percent of accidents globally attributed to human error, but the more autonomous the vehicle, the less we can blame the person operating it.

Volvo may have set a trend, announcing in October that it will accept full liability for accidents caused by its autonomous vehicles, but it remains to be seen whether other carmakers will follow suit.

If they don’t, then we have an increasingly convoluted legal conundrum to deal with.

The sheer number of players involved in the development of a driverless car means liability could ultimately be passed far through the supply chain, even to software developers, for instance.

If a designer creates an algorithm to decide whether a vehicle should collide with a cyclist wearing a helmet or a baby in a buggy, could the designer ultimately be criminally liable for the outcome of that programming?

Will we see corporate responsibility for road accidents?

At the moment, there are only interesting questions and suggestions but no firm answers or solutions.

The future for driverless cars in Asia is incredibly exciting, but in all the excitement, we need to focus on the difficult issues at hand.

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