Roll-out of self-driving cars on UK roads will create 'moral panic', claims Transport Minister

Introduction of autonomous vehicles will bring 'scare stories' and uncertainty over safety, MPs told

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The introduction of self-driving cars will create a “moral panic” in its early stages, a transport minister has warned.

Jesse Norman told a committee of MPs that a “horrendous” part of the development of the technology will be “scare stories, particularly in the early stages” and it would be a challenge to decide whether to “weather” that in the search for better road safety. 

Norman was giving evidence to the Commons’ Transport Select Committee on the future of self-driving vehicles in the UK, a month after Ford was granted permission to roll-out a hands-off assisted driving system for the first time.

Asked about the safety of self-driving vehicles by the Commons’ Transport Select Committee, Mr Norman said: “The horrendous thing about this is that we can be rationally certain there are going to be some scare stories, particularly in the early stages, because of the diversity of human life.

“It’s a really interesting question of consent and democratic engagement as to whether or not we as a policy, as a country, are able to weather that moral panic in the pursuit of a future which might lead to an enormously larger number of people not dying.”

(Photo: Ford)(Photo: Ford)
(Photo: Ford)

The safety record of self-driving vehicles will be “intensely publicly scrutinised”, the minister predicted.

Fully self-driving cars remain banned on public roads in the UK apart from during government-approved trials but legislation to approve the technology could be introduced as early as 2025.

Norman emphasised that there was a difference between advanced driver assistance systems like BlueCruise and fully autonomous vehicles. He added: “As people understand the difference between assisted and self-driving, we ought to be able to create a public environment in which there’s acceptance and understanding of that situation, but we can’t bank on it.”

Committee member and Conservative MP Paul Howell compared the issue to smart motorways, where “public opinion kicked back hard” as people “didn’t perceive (them) as being safe” despite data suggesting otherwise.

The Government announced last month that no new smart motorways would be built, citing a “lack of public confidence” in the roads and concerns over their cost.

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