• May 31, 2024

  • Debbie Lamb

Self-driving cars could be on UK roads in as little as two years’ time. This prediction came from the Department for Transport (DfT) when it announced that the Automated Vehicles Act 2024 had received Royal Assent on 20 May 2024.

The technology reducing the level of human involvement in operating vehicles has been developing fast in recent years. The government wants to see British firms at the forefront of this sector, estimating it to be worth £42 billion. This new law provides the legal framework necessary for allowing the technology on our roads in a safe and well-regulated way. It is said to be more clear, comprehensive and advanced than in any other country.

What Does the Automated Vehicles Act 2024 Cover?

The new legislation sets out the requirements for autonomous vehicles to pass checks and achieve certain safety levels. To be allowed on the roads, driverless vehicles will need to be “as careful and competent as human drivers.”

For the first time ever corporations, rather than drivers, can be held responsible for road traffic accidents. Determining liability is an important and controversial partof the Act. It states that when a vehicle is in self-driving mode the driver will not be responsible as corporations such as manufacturers, insurers and software developers will become liable under the new law.

An independent investigation function will back up the new vehicle approval system. Investigations into the causes of accidents will continually improve safety, following the example set by the aviation industry.

Misleading marketing is banned under the Act. Only vehicles that meet the required safety standards can be marketed as self-driving.

What Makes a Vehicle Autonomous?

To be classed as autonomous, a vehicle needs to be capable of driving itself with no human impact for at least part of a journey. There are currently no cars available in the UK that fully meet these criteria.

Ford BlueCruise technology, for example, requires the driver’s eyes to be kept on the road ahead and the driver remains responsible for safe driving at all times, while Tesla’s Autopilot is a suite of driver assistance features. Self-driving cars have, however, been trialled in London and Oxford by British artificial intelligence software companies Wayve and Oxa.

There are six levels of automation, established by the Society of Automotive Engineers International in 2014:

  • Level 0: No automation
  • Level 1: Driver Assistance – providing a single system such as steering or accelerating, but the driver remains responsible for full control of the car.
  • Level 2: Partial Driving Automation – the human driver is still required to be in control, despite Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), such as automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, or parking assistance.
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation – the vehicle can self-drive but requires human intervention in certain conditions.
  • Level 4: High Automation – the vehicle can perform all driving tasks under certain circumstances, but human override is still an option.
  • Level 5: Full Automation – The vehicle can carry out all the driving tasks by itself under all conditions without any human intervention.

Pros and Cons of Driverless Cars

While deaths on the roads have decreased since the 1970s, human error contributes to 88% of road collisions, according to DfT figures. One of the main advantages of driverless cars, therefore, is that they could lead to a reduction in collisions.

Those in favour of the technology believe that autonomous vehicles will have not only have a positive impact on safety but revolutionise society by improving mobility for many. Autonomous public transport could mean better access to bus services for rural communities, for example.

There could also be a positive economic effect as the government wants to tap into this sector. The UK received £475 million in direct investment for this technology between 2018 and 2022 and an estimated 39,000 new skilled jobs could be created by 2035.

On the other hand, more legislation will be needed to clarify remaining uncertainty over liability and cybersecurity risks. Members of the public are asking whether driverless technology can cope with British roads, given the potholes, windy lanes, faded road markings and bushes obscuring signs, etc. Navigating urban environments also sets big challenges for the technology.

A recent poll by Volkswagen Financial Services found that 60% believed they could drive better than autonomous vehicles and just under 40% were concerned about technical failures. Similarly, the RAC’s research showed that 58% of drivers are afraid of autonomous vehicles and only 15% believe they will make the roads safer.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper stated: “While this doesn’t take away people’s ability to choose to drive themselves, our landmark legislation means self-driving vehicles can be rolled out on British roads as soon as 2026.”


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