Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced plans to allow driverless cars to appear on Britain’s roads from the start of 2015.
The UK government has invited bids from cities to become one of three test locations with each project accessing a share of £10m fund and lasting from 18 to 36 months. There will be a review of current regulations with new rules to be drawn up by the end of 2014, allowing successful test schemes to begin in January.
The news emphasises the government’s commitment to autonomous vehicles, flagged in its 2013 National Infrastructure Plan, but is short on detail. Will the review go far enough to provide a real nursery for this potentially disruptive technology? The press release says that:
‘Regulatory areas the review will look at include the need for vehicles to comply with construction and safety regulations, traffic laws and relevant aspects of the Highway Code. The review will also look at licensing, liability and insurance and driverless regulations being put in place in other countries.‘
We feel that a much broader review is called for. As governments compete to enable driverless technology to take to their roads, this is an opportunity to draw up a set of rules that will promote the kind of future we want to see, and not merely tweak the existing regime. Current UK traffic rules are based on the 1968 Vienna Convention – this requires that a driver ‘shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals’. These rules clearly belong to a different generation and are now well past their sell-by date. An amendment is being made to allow driver assistance systems, but not moving away from ultimate driver control.
Before setting up the rules we should answer the fundamental questions. Are we prepared for complete autonomy or do we expect the driver to remain in ultimate control? Have we considered the impact on the many industry sectors that will be affected? How will public transport services such as buses and rail be affected, for example? What kind of insurance systems do we want to see? How will the changes affect congestion, criminal offences and liability for accidents? Will manufacturers be fixed with liability for accidents for the life of the vehicle?
Vince Cable’s announcement says that the UK ‘is backing the automotive sector as it goes from strength to strength’, but driverless cars present the industry with real threats. If cars are autonomous, people will no longer need to own their cars, but can call on a pool of autonomous, generic vehicles as and when they need them. The car makers will have to adapt fast to a changing demand for vehicular transport.
Developing a set of laws that will meet the needs of this new technology requires a blank sheet of paper, not a red pencil.