Would you travel in a driverless car?

The problem with the argument that driverless cars might be dangerous is that it presumes Australia's roads are currently filled with wonderful, attentive and responsible drivers.

Semi-autonomous vehicles are predicted to arrive in Australia by 2020. Fully autonomous cars are expected in 2025, according to the Future of Car Ownership report by the NRMA. Driverless cars may improve road safety and enhance the mobility of older people, but they also present significant issues around data privacy. What do the experts think?

1. Professor Des Butler

Professor of law at Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

Professor Des ButlerWhen people talk about driverless cars, the primary focus is around safety. I think it’s time to look at the privacy issues they present. Reports suggest driverless cars will generate up to 40 terabytes of data for every eight hours they’re on the road. They will know where you have been and what time you arrived. If you use the car’s technology to download emails, search the internet or make phone calls, it will have access to all that data, too. 

Who owns the data? Is it the vehicle manufacturer or the owner of the car? If it’s owned by the manufacturer, will they provide that data to third parties that they choose rather than those that you choose? If you drive to Domino’s to get your pizza, will you start receiving offers from Pizza Hut?

There are various problems associated with a vehicle knowing exactly where you’ve been. Also, if the vehicle is a fleet-owned car for a company such as Uber, it’s likely they will have cameras inside because they’ll want to monitor what people are doing to their vehicles. Would you want someone to see everything that you do inside a car at every moment?

“There are various problems associated with a vehicle knowing exactly where you’ve been.” Professor Des Butler

Driverless cars will present benefits for some people, such as seniors. However, I think the benefits for people with disabilities is overstated because they may still need someone to help them into the car and secure them.

Would I travel in a driverless car? I’d have hesitations. I don’t think that you can understate the questions they raise about privacy.

2. Ian Yates

Chief executive of Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia

Ian YatesThere are many cases of older drivers having their licence taken away. If they are involved in a major road accident, the media tends to focus on their age as the primary cause. There are certainly some older people who hang on to their licence for longer than is perhaps wise. This is often because of the enormous impact that it has on their mobility. 

I think a lot of older people would give up their licence if there were alternatives such as driverless cars. They offer significant opportunities but the key issue in the early days will be, “Can I afford it?”. Many older people are living on a pension. The digital world offers enormous opportunities to older people to participate and connect to broader communities, but one of the biggest barriers is the cost.

This is something that I believe government will need to look at in terms of the social good. We know that social isolation is a big health issue for older people and, to some degree, autonomous cars can help address this. It goes beyond the dimension of sheer road safety.

“… the key issue in the early days will be, ‘Can I afford it?’.” Ian Yates

In terms of adapting to the technology, let’s not forget that older people have adapted to, embraced and created the technology that we enjoy today. There’s a story that goes around our networks about a boy talking to his grandfather about how older people don’t understand technology. The grandfather lists every invention over the past 70 years and says “Mate, we created them all”.

3. Andrew Chesterton

Motoring journalist

Andrew ChestertonThe biggest and most persistent argument against driverless cars is that all those high-tech systems will one day fail. In a car with no steering wheel, that would be a very, very disturbing software crash.

It’s an understandable concern; anyone who has ever owned a computer knows the potential for the things to go unexpectedly kaput, and it’s difficult to simply turn a car off and back on again when it’s upside down or parked in a tree.

The problem with the argument that driverless cars might be dangerous, though, is that it presumes Australia’s roads are currently filled with wonderful, attentive and responsible drivers. As someone who spends more time driving than most, I can tell you that they’re certainly not.

The reality is that removing human beings from the equation will make our roads infinitely safer, and governments know it. In 2015, the US Government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that drivers were the critical cause of accidents in 94 per cent of cases. 

“The reality is that removing human beings from the equation will make our roads infinitely safer …”  Andrew Chesterton

Your driverless car is never going to try to jump a red light, will never speed and won’t polish off a couple of beers with its mates before deciding to chance it and drive home. 

It also won’t do drugs or get drowsy from prescription medications. It won’t get distracted or be suddenly overcome by an urge to sing along to Justin Bieber. Its Facebook won’t need updating from behind the wheel, there will be no need for selfies, and it will never get tired on a long trip. 

Driverless cars are coming, whether we like it or not – and I can’t wait.

Professional Development: CPA Q&A. Access a handpicked selection of resources each month and complete a short monthly assessment to earn CPD hours. Exclusively available to CPA Australia members.

The experts

Des Butler
Des Butler is a professor of law at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). He has written and co-authored 23 books and numerous articles looking at privacy law, media law, negligence, liability for psychiatric injury and legal education. His more recent work focuses on personal privacy and data protection arising from technology such as drones, driverless vehicles and the internet.

Ian Yates
Ian Yates is chief executive of COTA Australia, the national peak body for Councils on the Ageing in each state and territory. COTA Australia has more than 1000 organisational members representing over 500,000 seniors, plus 30,000 individual members. Yates also serves on a wide variety of federal government and aged-care sector national bodies. He is an honorary doctor and emeritus deputy chancellor of Flinders University. 

Andrew Chesterton
Andrew Chesterton is a motoring journalist who has spent 15 years driving almost anything with wheels, then writing about it. His work has been published in Drive, CarsGuide, Wheels, Motor, GQ, Men’s Health and marie claire

Read next: How driverless trucks will change the economy

Like what you're reading? Enter your email to receive the INTHEBLACK e-newsletter.
December/January 2022
December/January 2022

Read the December/January issue of INTHEBLACK in digital magazine format.

Our digital magazine brings you quality content every month, in an interactive and sustainable format you can enjoy on a PC, tablet or mobile.