The UK is a destination of choice for driverless developers; but can the regulators keep up?

The potential benefits of driverless vehicles are not new. Rio Tinto has been utilising driverless technology at its Pilbara iron ore mine in Western Australia since 2008, reporting health and safety benefits along with increased productivity. However, the race to make driverless technology an everyday reality, and bring the potential benefits to the populace at large, has been a relatively recent phenomenon.

Major players in the automotive and technology markets are now fully committed to bringing autonomous vehicles to the masses. Ford’s target is to have an autonomous vehicle available by the end of 2016, with Google sticking to their more conservative prediction of 2020 before we can expect driverless vehicles to hit the roads. But, whilst the appetite for the technology appears to be firmly in place, can the same be said for the regulations which would ultimately govern the practicalities of letting a car drive for us?

The UK government is a world leader in developing laws in order to fully embrace a Driverless Britain. The Department for Transport (“DfT”) published a detailed review of regulations for automated vehicle technologies in February 2015. This review concluded that the UK’s “legal and regulatory framework is not a barrier to the testing of automated vehicles on public roads”. Indeed, Google has held several meetings with the DfT since January 2014, and is “very positive about the non-regulatory approach being taken in the UK”. But what exactly does the current framework allow for, and what areas can we expect there to be further thought and development?

Real-world testing is already possible in the UK. That is to say, automated technologies can be used on public roads, provided that a test-driver is present and takes responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle. This makes the UK an attractive destination for companies wishing to develop their technology, as they are not restricted to a test track or empty stretches of road, and can therefore gather invaluable data about how their driverless cars interact with other road users.

The DfT published a Code of Practice for testing driverless cars in July 2015 which, although non-statutory, provided clear guidelines and recommendations for measures that should be taken in order to ensure safety. The guidelines identify the need for test-drivers to have skills “over and above those of drivers of conventional vehicles”, and confirm that the “responsibility for ensuring test-drivers…have received the appropriate training…lies with the testing organization”. It’s interesting to note, but not surprising, that “all existing laws regarding driver behaviour, for example prohibiting use of a hand-held mobile phone…, complying with speed limits, continue to apply even if the vehicle is operating in an automated mode”.

This touches on two areas where driverless technology is touted to improve; namely, safety and leisure. The flagbearers of autonomous technology regularly cite the safety advantages when the possibility of human error is removed, allowing vehicles to travel safely at greater speeds and in closer proximity than ever before. Equally, supporters of driverless cars also predict the technology could grant the opportunity for the ‘driver’ to use their travel time for leisure activities, freeing up an estimated six weeks of driving time per year. The current regulatory framework doesn’t allow for these benefits to be fully realized, and it will be interesting to see how far the Government’s commitment to the ideal of a Driverless Britain will go.

A Driverless Britain will require fundamental changes to UK law. In order to maximize the benefits, speed limits would need to be increased or abolished and current conceptions of a ‘safe’ driving distance re-thought. The role of the ‘driver’ is potentially the most difficult area for reform and poses numerous questions for the Government:

  • Will the ‘driver’ simply become another passenger?
  • Will there be any requirement for them to be licensed?
  • Will they be liable for any damage or injury?
  • Will they be able to watch a film, read a book or use their mobile on the road?
  • Is it a possibility that children could one day legally travel in an autonomous vehicle without an adult?

Perhaps a more important question for the immediate future is how the Government will deal with the transition period, where human-operated cars are sharing the road with autonomous vehicles. A key indicator in this respect will be the recent launch of the £8 million GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) project, spearheaded by the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory. This will practically access the viability of driverless technology on UK streets, and will provide the industry, government and society to better understand how the technology will integrate with our towns and cities. A fully Driverless Britain is still many years away. Technology may be getting to where it needs to be, but the actuality is that there are more wide-ranging regulatory, societal and legal considerations that need to be resolved. It is hoped that the GATEway project will be a means of highlighting the main areas that require reform, even if this is just trying to normalise the idea of driverless cars to the average person on the street.

The stage is set for the UK to be a destination of choice for autonomous vehicle developers and could ultimately be an industry leader for what would be one of the most important technological advancements of the 21st century.  All eyes will be on the DfT to conceive and implement a new framework which will make Driverless Britain a reality.