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Autonomous driving should not be in Road Traffic and Roads Act without debate

Comment & Analysis: Hours of the debate on the long-awaited Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021 have been spent talking about electric scooters — that’s in stark contrast to the introduction of even part-driverless cars.

When you search the Oireachtas debates for ‘autonomous vehicles’ or ‘driverless cars’ etc, you’ll get a few hits but little in the way of debate.

When he was asked back in October, transport Minister Eamon Ryan said: “The question of autonomous vehicles was raised. This legislation allows for the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads. As for my own view on how quickly that will come in, I do not see it as a completely futuristic world in which the car whizzes along without any attention from the driver. It is, however, appropriate that we are testing. Senator Garvey mentioned a testing site in Shannon, which is a very good example of where we can do this. This legislation will provide for that.”

The dangers of e-scooters has been highlighted and stressed, and groups have even been brought into Oireachtas Committee on transport to stress their concerns.

E-scooter users are criminalised because of a catch-all law and the extremely slow progress of the Road Traffic and Roads Bill. Meanwhile, there are already part-autonomous driving features being used on Irish roads with no apparent legal backing for such. There’s also not even a tiny bit of moral panic which can be seen about e-scooters.

The most recently published version of the Road Traffic and Roads Bill has no mention of testing, it’s just a general legalising of part-autonomous driving, which drivers are supposed to be supervising.

This article isn’t saying “no way” to autonomous driving, but it is saying that there should at least be at least a substantial debate first, and rule with enforcement powers put in place.

Bavarian State Police issued a statement on December 29, 2022 outlining how officers spent 15 minutes trying to wake up a sleeping Tesla driver who bypassed the EU rule which requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel:

“The driver was driving on the A70 from Bamberg in the direction of Bayreuth around 12 p.m. when the police patrol wanted to subject him to a traffic check. He did not respond to stop signals or repeated horns from the officers. It was noticeable that the vehicle kept the same distance from the patrol car in front from the Viereth-Trunstadt junction to the Bamberg-Hafen junction at 110 kilometers per hour. Officers found that the Tesla driver was reclining in the seat with his eyes closed and his hands off the steering wheel.”

“This strengthened the suspicion that he had left the controls to the autopilot and had fallen asleep. After about 15 minutes, the man finally woke up and followed the instructions of the police. He showed drug-typical abnormalities during the check-up. The officers also found a so-called steering wheel weight in the footwell. This device is attached to the steering wheel to trick the vehicle’s safety system by pretending that your hand is on the wheel.”

The driver has had to give up their licence ahead of a court deciding about charges of endangering road traffic. Knowing our legal system, the driver might get away with their action because of the way the law is written or because a “steering wheel weight” isn’t strickly illegal.

And Jason Slaughter of Not Just Bikes wrote of his experience last week with “Full Self-Driving” mode on a rented Tesla in Canada:

“I tried the ‘Full Self-Driving (Beta)’ on a Model Y in Toronto. It was terrifying. I turned off ‘aggressive’ and ‘assertive’ modes and ‘drive 20% higher than speed limit’ (why are these even options?).”

“It tried to drive in the bike lane to avoid traffic multiple times, it got totally confused by angled parking, it had to do an emergency stop to avoid hitting a pedestrian when turning right, plus dozens of other issues. At my destination it rammed right into a snowbank. Why is this legal?!”

Slaughter had to add: “People thought I was joking, but no, Tesla really does have an option in its “Full Self-Drive (Beta)” to go faster than the speed limit. It was set to 20% over when I got in. Exceeding the speed limit is so normalized in the US & Canada that this is a standard feature.”

The German example is one of many which show that there need to be laws around the use of even part-driverless features and what Not Just Bikes outlines is a culture and design of car makers which should not be tolerated.

Should Irish politicians and Minister Ryan really be providing for even part-autonomous driving without any notable discussion of the issues first?

PS: Please, do not claim that it’s an EU-level issue when we’re going ahead and adding legislation which is not required by the EU.

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1 comment

  1. Unfortunately the Irish attitude seems to be, by a large, one of retrospective reactions and poor maintenance of plans implemented.

    Such a lackadaisical approach to roads and safety on roads leads to the inevitable abandonment of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. This together with haphazard planning with little or no uniformity throughout the country leaves us with the chaos we experience every day.

    Drivelesscar legislation here will probably result in vulnerable road user, including bicycle users and pedestrians, deaths increasing and there’ll be reaction after reaction and ultimately further wild west style chaos.

    Reply

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