Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are among the hottest of topics in the tech sector right now.  For technology lawyers (especially those who love cars), they offer a particularly exciting opportunity to grapple with emerging issues that are at the crossroads of law, politics and society.

AVs are hyped as the route to improving vehicle safety, reducing emissions and congestion, and increasing mobility - especially at the fringes of society.  As this thought-provoking piece from The Economist points out, we must resist the temptation to think about AVs in a technological bubble - they need to be viewed in a broader context that includes their legal implications and the wider social impact.

Are we on a journey to safer streets?

According to the European Commission, some 25,600 people died on European Union roads in 2016, the vast majority of accidents caused by human actions rather than vehicle faults.  But to what extent will AVs solve this issue?

The tragic death of a woman in a collision with an automated Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018 suggests there is some way to go before this goal is realised.  But the initial report by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the car's emergency braking systems had been deliberately disabled to "reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behaviour" - so was this actually another example of human error being to blame?  Inevitably AVs will cause accidents along the way, but they are expected to make travel dramatically safer in the longer term.

We need to ensure we establish a framework for developing AVs that prioritises safety improvements.  This includes establishing sound legal principles to allocate responsibility when things go wrong.  The advent of AVs will be staged, with a gradual growth in autonomous features until the vehicle is in total control.  As drivers increasingly relinquish the controls, the liability picture becomes murkier.  This will be one of the main areas to watch as AV technologies develop in the coming months and years.

Will we witness a major decline in vehicle ownership?

The short answer is - yes, we probably will.  The sharing economy is a huge factor and will contribute to significant changes in the way we provide mobility solutions throughout society.  In parallel with the move towards AVs, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is tipped to become increasingly popular and may result in enhanced integration between different modes of transport.

MaaS presents obvious benefits for cities but also has serious potential to service rural areas, where transport services may currently be lacking.  MaaS lends itself to demand-driven, scalable implementation, which will create great opportunities for innovators to service these types of micro-economies.

Alongside these trends, manufacturers are realising that consumers are likely to start choosing brands based less on the driving experience and more on practicalities and coverage.  With vehicle ownership potentially becoming a thing of the past, manufacturers are recognising the need to build these developments into their strategic agendas.

As part of these changes in the way we deliver mobility solutions, we need to pay sufficient attention to ensuring that we maximise the broader social benefits and increase accessibility.  Conversely it will be vital to avoid allowing AVs and MaaS to become tools for excluding any segments of society.

And what about data?

As this article from The Economist observes, AVs will record everything that happens around them.  They will gather a wealth of data about individuals and will be connected to communications networks, their surrounding infrastructure, and each other.  This data-rich environment clearly gives AVs huge potential value but also represents a real risk area, as they will be prime targets for hackers and data thieves.

More broadly, we need to be cognisant of the legal and social implications.  Uber has been able to analyse passenger data to identify one-night stands, which probably isn't the type of thing that people would want or expect others to do with their data.  Data on people's movements also risks being used to obstruct and restrict individuals' mobility, instead of enhancing it.  Again, this is a key area where the political and social implications of massive technological change must be taken seriously.

Where do we go from here?

AVs are coming and there's clearly much to celebrate.  If directed in the right way, they will usher in enormous benefits in terms of safety, mobility, urban planning, and the environment.

We need to ensure that all of this happens with an eye to the risks.  Above all we'll require a combination of political, social, legal and technological viewpoints to enable us to maximise the benefits of AVs.  In any event the next few years will be a fascinating time for the sector as AVs and other autotech developments increasingly disrupt traditional models.

We recently hosted a roundtable at CMS where leading automotive industry players discussed what the future will look like.  The predictions for the industry, and more information on the themes I've mentioned in this post, have been consolidated into our recently-published report on 'Shaping the future of mobility' - please do give it a read!