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By Jack Loughran
Published Friday, September 15, 2023
MPs have urged the government to update self-driving vehicle (SDV) legislation in order to maintain the competitive advantage the UK currently has in the sector.
The cross-party Transport Commission said that regulations need to be rapidly modernised to tackle concerns about safety, legal liability and infrastructure ahead of proposals to allow SDVs to be fully deployed on British roads in 2025.
“For the UK specifically, there may be a delicate balance to be struck between remaining at the forefront of innovation and keeping the wider public on board,” the Commission said in a report.
Over the last decade, progress has stalled on autonomous vehicles on both sides of the Atlantic, despite predictions that they would be commonplace by now. While the technology already exists for autonomous vehicles to drive relatively safely on UK roads, legislation has held the technology back from hitting the mainstream.
Last year, the government proposed changes to the Highway Code that would allow drivers to watch TV at speeds of up to 37mph when fully autonomous cars are rolled out. The rules would mean drivers are not responsible for crashes in autonomous cars, with the burden instead falling on insurance companies.
The Committee said the government should take a “cautious, gradual approach” by introducing SDVs only in well-defined contexts.
It warned that without careful handling, the technology could worsen congestion and exacerbate existing inequalities in transport access. Safety should also remain the government’s “overriding priority” when SDVs encounter real-world road networks.
Transport Committee chair Iain Stewart said: “Thanks to the energy and creativity of the self-driving vehicles sector, the UK has a head start in developing a vision for how SDVs could be introduced.
“Self-driving vehicles are a great British success story in the making and we have a competitive advantage over many other countries. But all that hard work could be at risk if the government doesn’t follow through and bring forward a Transport Bill in the next parliamentary session, before the next general election.
“Widespread take-up of SDVs faces various hurdles, including public confidence in their safety, security and their potential to have knock-on impacts on other road users. If the government is going to meet its ambitions for self-driving vehicle deployment, these knotty issues need to be addressed.”
The committee recommended that the government set out new legislation to govern SDVs for the next parliamentary session in the King’s Speech on 7 November.
Ensuring SDVs are roadworthy will be more complicated than for conventional vehicles due to their technological complexity.
Cyber security was highlighted as a particular concern that poses new dangers, which the law must evolve to meet. In particular, broad access to safety data would be a key tenet of ensuring that SDVs are road-worthy.
In May, the UK’s first self-driving bus service began taking passengers across Scotland’s Forth Road Bridge.
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