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Life as a driverless car regulator  

We spoke to Lucy Yu of the UK Government's Centre for Connected & Autonomous Vehicles, about life as a driverless car regulator:

How much of a challenge are automated vehicles, for regulators?

Apple CEO Tim Cook recently described self-driving cars as the ‘mother of all AI challenges’. Well, I’ve got news for him: they’re also the mother of all regulatory challenges! But that’s what makes them interesting. Governments around the globe are debating the most appropriate regulatory approach for autonomous systems, and self-driving cars are one of the first real world use cases they’re faced with tackling - they’re going to be firmly in the spotlight for many years.

Safety and security are two areas of highest concern to the public. Do you feel a weight of responsibility to get things right?

Absolutely, I’m not complacent. The first time I rode in a self-driving car I had already seen the media lines that the authorities and testing organisation had agreed to use were I to be killed or injured during the trial. Safety is always going to be a top concern for regulators and a lot of the procedures used for conventional vehicles don’t translate well to an autonomous world. So we’ll see new approaches probably involving industry and government coming together more closely. I foresee developers holding each other to account in a stronger fashion to gain public confidence and advance the industry overall, and governments developing deeper expertise and internal capabilities. We may also see the application of principles from other industries - pharma and aviation have some interesting examples.

What about other areas of concern?

I do think a lot about the broader implications. I used to be evasive whenever taxi drivers asked me what I did for a living. Now I tell them - we owe it to society to have a proper conversation about what a future of AI and autonomous systems will mean for society, and what we can do to make that transition in the most responsible way - that’s not going to happen if we don’t start talking about it.

What’s the best bit of your job?

Where to start! Well...the technology itself is fascinating, and the business models we’re likely to see will have some profound implications for how we live, work, socialise. Don’t underestimate their potential for transformation. But probably the best thing is the sheer number of inspiring people I get to meet, their dedication to the cause, and the really vibrant ecosystem of British SMEs coming to the fore - not just in software, but in hardware, advanced materials and logistics and supply chain.

What are your reflections for someone considering a career in automated vehicles or wider applications of artificial intelligence?

When I first started working on automated vehicles just about everyone I knew told me I was crazy. But as with all things disruptive, the pace of change has been fast and fortunately I haven’t had to suffer their ridicule for too long! I think the activities of the big tech companies and vehicle manufacturers have facilitated a change in mindset. But in general I think the level of debate in this area is becoming more mature as well. People don’t (just) ask me about the ‘trolley problem’ anymore - instead they ask me about regulation of platforms, what autonomous vehicles will mean for rail and other modes, and even whether the pursuit of artificial intelligence is fundamentally a good thing or not. They’re non-trivial discussions so I’d recommend a career in these areas for anyone with a thirst for technology and a strong sense of social responsibility.


Contact Lucy Yu on LinkedIn

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