UK accelerates its self-driving vehicle ambitions

Self-driving vehicles are set to be on the UK’s roads by 2025 with plans for vehicles that includes some autonomous capability to be allowed to operate within 12 months.

The UK government has tabled new legislation which will look to create the necessary safety standards  to allow self-driving vehicles. The plans are to be backed by £100 million, which prioritise safety through new laws and create thousands of new jobs in the industry.

Under the plans, some vehicles, including cars, coaches and lorries, with self-driving features could be operating on motorways in the next year, and the government’s plans set out new legislation which will allow for the safe wider rollout of self-driving vehicles by 2025.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps explained: “The benefits of self-driving vehicles have the potential to be huge. Not only can they improve people’s access to education and other vital services, but the industry itself can create tens of thousands of job opportunities throughout the country.

“Most importantly, they’re expected to make our roads safer by reducing the dangers of driver error in road collisions.”

He added: “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.

“The government is consulting on a ‘safety ambition’ for self-driving vehicles to be as safe as a competent and careful human driver. This ambition would inform standards that vehicles need to meet to be allowed to ‘self-drive’ on the roads, and organisations, such as manufacturers, could face sanctions if standards are not met.

“The new laws for the safe rollout of self-driving vehicles by 2025 will be brought forward when parliamentary time allows.”

Shapps also addressed the issue of liability putting the responsibility firmly with the manufacturers.

“The legislation will build on existing laws, and state that manufacturers are responsible for the vehicle’s actions when self-driving, meaning a human driver would not be liable for incidents related to driving while the vehicle is in control of driving,” he explained.

Alistair Kinley, Clyde & Co’s Director of Policy and Government Affairs, said: “This report is good news. It demonstrates that the UK government has reached two key conclusions. First, the Law Commission’s guidance on how to build a new, safety-focused, legal framework for autonomous vehicles should be adopted. Second, handled effectively, the introduction of autonomous vehicles onto Britain’s roads by 2025 would be a major technological win for the country.

“On liability and insurance specifically, the report endorses the need for a clear bright line test between human driver control and true self-driving.

“The successful introduction of autonomous vehicles will bring technological innovations and environmental benefits. Reading the huge detail in this report of the various work streams and action points, it’s clear the government’s goal is for the UK to be at the forefront of this work globally.

“But it’s not going to be plain sailing. The timescales contained in the report are just about realistic and the legislation will need to encompass insurance, data sharing, and privacy in addition to all the technical aspects. It’s going to be a heavy piece of legislation. The government is aiming to implement all of this in full during 2024–25, although we could see automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS) being authorised for motorway use with the next year. We also anticipate significant consultation about the necessary secondary legislation.”

The government’s vision for self-driving vehicles is backed by a total of £100 million, with £34 million confirmed for research to support safety developments and inform more detailed legislation. This could include researching the performance of self-driving cars in poor weather conditions and how they interact with pedestrians, other vehicles, and cyclists.

It also confirmed that £20 million, as part of the overall £100 million, will be used to help kick-start commercial self-driving services and enable businesses to grow and create jobs in the UK, following an existing £40 million investment.

It added successful projects could help see, for example, groceries delivered to customers by self-driving vehicles, or shuttle pods assisting passengers when moving through airports. £6 million will also be used for further market research and to support commercialisation of the technology.

While vehicles that can drive themselves on motorways could be available to purchase within the next year, users would need a valid driving licence in order to drive on other roads. Other self-driving vehicles, for example used for public transport or delivery, expected on the roads by 2025, would not need anyone onboard with a driving licence because they would be able to drive themselves for the whole journey.