Britain moves closer to self-driving cars with Highway Code changes

Autonomous cars, Car stuff, Transport

  • Government sets out changes to Highway Code to ensure self-driving vehicles are introduced safely 
  • Changes clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles, including when a driver must be ready to take back control
  • Future technology could improve and level up transport, easing congestion, cutting emissions, and reducing collisions

Drivers will be able to experience the full benefits of the first self-driving vehicles when they arrive, claims the Government, as it sets out how they should be driven safely on UK roads.

The Government has confirmed planned changes to The Highway Code, responding to a public consultation. It says the changes to the Code will help ensure the first wave of technology will be used safely, explaining clearly that while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to do so – such as when they approach motorway exits.

The plans also include a change to current regulation, allowing drivers to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control. It will, however, still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, given the greater risk they pose in distracting drivers as shown in research.

With self-driving technology rapidly developing across the globe, Britain’s first vehicles approved for self-driving could be ready for use later this year. Vehicles will undergo rigorous testing and only be approved as self-driving when they have met stringent standards.  

Says Transport Minister Trudy Harrison: 

“This is a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles, which will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable.   

“This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we’re ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads. 

“In doing so, we can help improve travel for all while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower.”   

Adds Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation: 

“The Highway Code has been updated a number of times in recent years to reflect the rapidly changing transport world we live in, and these latest additions will help us all understand what we must and must not do as we move forward to an environment where cars drive themselves.

“The final part of the jigsaw is to ensure these amendments are widely communicated to, ​and understood by,​ vehicle owners. Vehicle manufacturers and sellers will have a vital role to play in ensuring their customers fully appreciate the capabilities of the cars they buy and the rules that govern them.”

TV driving

However, not all groups are in favour of the changes – particularly with regard to allowing users of self-driving cars to watch TV while driving. Says Louis Rix, COO and co-founder of car finance platform CarFinance 247:

“The proposals to allow users of self-driving cars to watch TV while driving seems incomprehensibly irresponsible. Road users have always expressed concern over the introduction of self-driving cars, and this will be no help in building the confidence of reluctant consumers.

“The government needs to rely on support and trust from consumers when the first self-driving vehicles are introduced to roads in the UK, but there are likely to be many road users who will actively try and avoid a car they recognise as driverless due to safety concerns.

“While the proposals will say drivers need to be ready to take back control of the vehicle, we must also think of the effects of watching television whilst driving – how often do we find ourselves falling asleep in front of the TV? The move begs so many questions that we are forced to question whether we are in fact ready for the introduction of self-driving vehicles.

“Though the proposals also indicate responsibility for any driving faults in self-driving cars will lie with the manufacturer rather than the driver, users will undoubtedly be worried about the effects it could have on their insurance premiums.”

Public consultation

Nevertheless, measures confirmed today follow a public consultation launched by the Government, which found the majority of respondents were broadly supportive of the proposed changes to the Highway Code to clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles. 

Furthermore, the introduction of the technology is likely to begin with vehicles travelling at slow speeds on motorways, such as in congested traffic.  

Following a landmark Call for Evidence, the Government announced in April last year that vehicles fitted with Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) technology could be the first example of self-driving technology. Existing technology available on the market is ‘assistive,’ meaning drivers must currently always remain in control and responsible.  

Designed for use on a motorway in slow traffic, ALKS enables a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane, up to 37mph, while maintaining the ability to return control easily and safely to the driver when required.   

The development of self-driving vehicles could create around 38,000 new, high-skilled jobs within Britain’s industry that would be worth £41.7 billion by 2035.

Chris Price
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