March 26 2018
By Shahrim Tamrin
WE’ve dreamed about it for ages. For many years, film makers and science fiction authors have been feeding movie goers and audience the idea for the future of having autonomous vehicle or driverless car.
We are not there yet but it is not a distant dream. From the 90s until today, several road safety technologies were introduced which include the fitment of adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning system, parking assist system, lane keeping assistance, autonomous emergency braking and now we have automated highway driving, traffic jam assistance and probably beginning 2020, we may see automated vehicles on our roads.
By then, there is every possibility 0f an autonomous vehicle picking you up in front of your home or office.
You hop into the car, enjoying the view on passenger seat, no worry about driving, catching up with friends via electronic messaging or indulge yourself in that biography book of a footballer while you are being transported in a car without a driver, moving at ease in the typical Friday evening Kuala Lumpur traffic.
Excitement or fear?
Before Malaysians can start dreaming of leaving the cars or motorbikes at home to attain the luxury to be chauffeured in an E-Hailing driverless vehicle on Klang Valley or Penang roads, we need to ponder and address the crux in any new mode of transportation – the legal aspect.
The news on Sunday night from the US was a wakeup call. An autonomous car operated by Uber travelling around 64 km/h struck and killed a 49-year-old lady walking with a bicycle attempting to cross the four-lane road in Tempe, Arizona. New York Times reported that the death of the woman, “was the first pedestrian fatality associated with self-driving technology.”
Three years ago, this scribe attended a road safety conference in the capital city. In a segment discussing about self-driving technology, a presenter from Nanyang Technological University Singapore posed an interesting legal outlook surrounding automated cars.
The University Professor asked:
1) Will the regulators, society and consumers be ready to face the fact that automated vehicle is not 100 per cent error free?
2) Who will be responsible for mayhem caused by automated vehicle or a crash involving a driverless car with a pedestrian by the roadside or the self-driving car crashing into a tree with occupants inside suffering injuries?
3) Will the traffic or transport regulators go after the carmaker or the software developer of the driverless system or the transport operator (if it is a public service vehicle) or owner of the vehicle as the party responsible in a road crash?
4) Will the regulators and society allow this future of transport to be on the road to replace the role of human and therefore reduce the mistakes or blunders by individual behind the wheel?
Interpretation of a driver
According to Malaysia’s Road Transport Act 1987, the definition of a driver at present, “means the person for the time being driving a motor vehicle and, in the case of a stationary motor vehicle, includes the person for the time being responsible for the driving of the motor vehicle.”
While a driving licence, “means a licence to drive a motor vehicle granted or deemed to be granted under Part II and includes a learner‘s driving licence and a probationary driving licence granted under Section 29.”
The following points may sound cheeky and odd.
- a)Does it mean that Road Transport Department (JPJ) will issue a 2-year probationary driving license (P License) to the driverless car or the developer of the software or the carmaker?
- b)Are we going to see JPJ conducting probationary driving test to Google or Tesla, for example to determine whether the car or driverless system could pass the test as a ‘driver’ and apply the same standard and aptitude like other learner or new (human) drivers?
Upon further probe, Section 26 (1) of the Act states that: “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, no person shall drive a motor vehicle of any class or description, on a road unless he is the holder of a driving licence authorizing him to drive a motor vehicle of that class or description, and no person shall employ or permit another person to drive a motor vehicle on the road unless the person so employed or permitted to drive is the holder of such a driving licence.’
Which brings to another situation on the ownership of self-driving car.
- How is it possible for the insurance industry and JPJ to safeguard road users alongside the emergence of driverless technology and setting guidelines for a driverless car to be classified as competent ‘driver’?
- Will the authorities have the capacity and aptitude to reach the sophisticated technical level to scrutinise and evaluate a self-driving car before it can roam our streets?
- If the answer is yes, what is the benchmark of a ‘driver’ for Malaysia to apply on self-driving car?
- For example, in a road fatality case involving Uber self-driving car, will the authorities call up the Chief Executive Officer of Uber based in San Francisco or its Regional Manager in Singapore or the Chief Technology Officer of the software company based in Silicon Valley to appear before a judge in Malaysia?
Driverless cars will be on our shores soon enough. It will be interesting to see how our lawmakers and authorities cope with this new wave of transport.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for any technological advances to improve the road safety elements and reduce or eliminate human factors to make the roads safer.
Driverless car could be the answer to reduce road crashes and driver’s attitude could be a thing in the past should autonomous cars be a norm in Malaysia.
Caption: Google’s self-driving car