With the first trials of computer-controlled cars set to begin over the next few months, the UK Government has begun drafting regulations that will require ‘drivers’ to remain alert and prepared to take the wheel at any time.
Under a Department for Transport review, driverless cars will be allowed to operate on UK roads as long as drivers are able and ready to take control if needed.
Although drivers will no longer need to keep both hands on the wheel, seatbelts will still be required and anyone sitting in the driver’s seat will continue to be responsible for any speeding fines and penalties incurred.
Four official pilot projects running between 18 and 36 months and involving General Motors, the AA and RAC will take place later this year in Bristol, Greenwich, Coventry and Milton Keynes.
It is hoped the tests, which will take place on real roads, will raise public awareness of the prospect of driverless cars becoming an everyday reality and lead to greater understanding of how the vehicles would impact on other road users and operate in heavy traffic.
The tests will also investigate the insurance and legal implications of driverless cars and lead to the development of roadside infrastructure to interact with such vehicles.
It is hoped the findings will be used to implement the successful introduction of driverless cars across the country in the hope that their use leads to reduced congestion, improved air quality and a safer driving environment.
HM Government has admitted that the current Highway Code and rules of the road are unsuitable for a new generation of vehicles able to drive themselves and interact with unpredictable traffic.
Announcing an extra £9m in funding for the new technology on top of the £10m already pledged the government has stated its aim is to establish the UK as an international hub for the research, development and testing of a new generation of robot vehicles and their associated technologies.
In the future, the belief is that we will be able to hand over full responsibility to a vehicle’s computerised controls. Fully automated vehicles that never get tired or distracted can of course improve road safety and help elderly and disabled people get around.
In the short term however, if drivers need to be able to take control of their vehicles at a moments notice, one concern is how long they can stay alert if they don’t actually have anything to do other than react in an emergency.
What we are dealing with here is the prospect of allowing robots to share our roads with more than 30 million conventional vehicles. The number of questions that prospect raises is clearly cause for real concern.
How will driverless cars progress down a busy urban street when they are programmed to brake each time they detect a pedestrian either in their way or close to near-stationary traffic?
How will they deal with cyclists when they are programmed to only overtake whatever is in front of them when a gap equal to that when overtaking a car appears? Equally, how will driverless cars interpret hand signals from other drivers when for example waiting at junctions or roundabouts?
Who would be liable if a computer-controlled vehicle was to be involved in a road traffic accident with a car being driven by a person?
It will be interesting to see how other road users respond when they encounter driverless vehicles. It has been suggested that such vehicles display some kind of warning signal such as a sticker or different kind of number plate.
The Government insist that there are “huge safety benefits” to testing the new technology. It is estimated that 95% of road crashes are caused by human error and any proposals to develop technology to increase road safety and cut down on the five deaths and 61 injuries that occur each day on our roads are to be welcomed.
However, we need absolute legal clarity on how these vehicles will operate on our roads and how driving offence legislation may need to be modified as a result.
What is clear is that a new regime of rules and regulations will be introduced before any driverless vehicles go on sale. Laws governing insurance liability, tax and the MOT test as well as a revamped Highway Code and driving license regime are expected to be agreed upon by the end of 2017.
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