The UK government has committed to have driverless cars “operating safely” on British roads by 2025 with some types of vehicles including coaches and lorries with self-driving features approved for use on motorways next year. An expert told Tech Monitor this timeline is both “ambitious and achievable”.
It isn’t clear when the new legislation governing the use and regulation of driverless vehicles will be introduced but the government has previously declared it would lay the bill for the new legal framework in the next session of parliament. It will build on existing laws and state that manufacturers are responsible for the vehicle’s actions when self-driving.
The Department for Transport estimates the market for self-driving vehicles could create up to 38,000 jobs in the UK and a report by the motor trade industry body SMMT claims the UK is in pole position in the race to market for autonomous vehicles which could be worth £62bn by 2030.
To attempt to capitalise on this potential, the government has committed £100m to make safe driverless vehicles a reality in the UK. This includes £40m pledged earlier this year, £20m to kick-start commercial services and £34m for research and development.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said in a statement that the benefits presented by self-driving vehicles could be huge, including through improved education, upskilling and improving road safety by reducing the dangers of driver error.
How the UK driverless car roll-out will work
The SMMT report backs this claim of improved safety, suggesting fully autonomous vehicles could reduce fatalities by 3,900 and serious accidents by 47,000 by 2030.
“We want the UK to be at the forefront of developing and using this fantastic technology, and that is why we are investing millions in vital research into safety and setting the legislation to ensure we gain the full benefits that this technology promises,” said Shapps.
It will be a phased roll-out, with vehicles able to drive themselves available to purchase within the next year, but only allowed to operate autonomously on motorways. This means that, at least initially, drivers would need a valid driving licence and have to drive them themselves on non-motorway roads.
Other self-driving vehicles including those used for public transport and deliveries would be legal and on the roads by 2025 under the new plans, and they would not require anyone on board to have a driving licence.
The Department for Transport predicts driverless vehicles will provide more tailored on-demand links between rural towns and villages than is currently viable and more direct and timely services elsewhere to “enable people to better access vital services”.
A new consultation has been launched by the government to find out how to ensure self-driving vehicles can be as safe as a competent and careful human driver, an ambition that “would inform standards that vehicles need to meet” to be allowed to “self-drive”.
The new legislation will place the legal risk for accidents with the vehicle manufacturer, leading to sanctions if they fail to meet standards at any point. This means that “a human driver would not be liable for incidents related to driving while the vehicle is in control of the driving", the Department for Transport says.
Evolution from assisted driving
The government is “right to embrace the positive changes offered by this new technology” said Edmund King, president of the AA. He said it is the next evolution of driving, going beyond the current assisted driving systems, for example, autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, that “are already helping millions of drivers stay safe on the roads”.
King added: “It is still quite a big leap from assisted driving, where the driver is still in control, to self-driving, where the car takes control. It is important that the government does study how these vehicles would interact with other road users on different roads and changing weather conditions.
“However the ultimate prize, in terms of saving thousands of lives and improving the mobility of the elderly and the less mobile, is well worth pursuing.”
Safety remains one of the biggest challenges around driverless vehicles, according to Dr Siddartha Khastgir, head of verification and validation for intelligent vehicles in the WMG group at Warwick University. He told Tech Monitor the government's approach appears to be a measured one which keeps safety as a "fundamental guiding principle".
"Research at WMG on [the] safety of self-driving vehicles has shown that having a strong regulatory approach can act as an enabler for the self-driving vehicle ecosystem, while also preventing unsafe technology being deployment which is key," Dr Khastgir said, adding that a regulatory framework can provide "guidance in design and performance benchmarks".
Dr Khastgir added: "Having a 2025 timeline for a regulatory approach is both ambitious and achievable," and believes such a timeline is important to ensure the UK's leadership in the sector.