Fully driverless cars with no safety driver look set to become a feature of the UK’s roads before the end of the year. Until now the UK has not been a major test ground for autonomous vehicles technology, with the U.S. favoured by the Western companies leading the race. However, a government move to drop the requirement for a safety driver to always be present would be expected to change that, catapulting the UK to the front of the queue as a test driving location for the technology.
The USA is the only place in the Western world (fully driverless tests have been conducted in China) where driverless vehicles have been allowed to operate without a safety driver. And even then the severe restrictions placed on such tests mean the miles covered are limited. No European country has hosted fully autonomous vehicle test drives. The UK’s Ministry of Transport believes relaxing the regulations here will catapult Britain to the forefront of the revolutionary new technology.
Fully driverless taxi services are expected to be operational in the UK by 2021. The government hopes that allowing driverless test driving now will mean that the technology is adopted in in Britain ahead of the curve, bringing associated economic advantages. It is forecast that driverless technology will be worth £52 billion to the economy by 2032.
A strict application process for testing is expected to apply. Companies conducting driverless tests will also be obliged to inform the police in advance and also laisse with local councils to mitigate the risk that unexpected roadworks could represent. The new rules will also say testing will have to be scaled down, paused or terminated if any accident involving a driverless test vehicle requires investigation.
UK transport secretary Chris Grayling announced:
“Today we are updating our guidance on automated vehicle trials, cementing the UK’s position as a world leader in the development and testing of this innovative technology.”
The move is not, however, being universally welcomed with concerns around the safety implications of relaxing current regulations. Quoted in The Times newspaper, transport journalist Christian Wolmar stated:
“This is cart before horse stuff. This technology is nowhere near ready to be let loose without an operator in control. This is so far ahead of what’s feasible and it is going to put lives at risk . . . We should have a driver on board at all times and even then I think these trials should be limited to more controlled areas like dual carriageways and motorways.”
Those within the driverless vehicles industry argue that the technology itself is no longer the major bottleneck and it is regulations and laws that must catch up. The insist the evidence shows that all significant accidents to date involving driverless vehicles have been the result of human error on the part of other drivers or pedestrians and a human driver would not have been expected to be able to avoid the situation. However, without much more extensive testing, it is hard to accurately gauge holes in the algorithms which still need to be closed. The worry is that discovering these potential blind spots may come at the cost of human life. The counter argument is that there are hundreds of fatal accidents on the UK’s roads every month caused by human error and that ultimately driverless cars will be far safer.