Self-driving cars are coming. And as with any transformative new technology, they present both big opportunities and big challenges for policymakers.
As we’ve written previously, autonomous vehicles have the potential to greatly improve road safety, reduce travel times, and therefore boost productivity. There could also be considerable economic benefits if the technology is created here in the UK. However, in order to realise those benefits, we need policies to support the development of autonomous vehicles, as well as new laws to govern them on the roads.
Politicians around the world are beginning to grapple with these challenges, and those in Westminster are no exception. The Government is putting both money and legislation behind the autonomous revolution.
THE AUTOMATED AND ELECTRIC VEHICLES BILL
In June’s Queen’s Speech, the Government announced an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which it declared would ‘ensure the UK continues to be at the forefront of developing new technology in electric and automated road vehicles’.
In fact, the Bill isn’t as grand or far-reaching as that description makes it sound. It simply resurrects legislation that was making its way through the House of Commons – as part of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – before Parliament was dissolved for the recent General Election. As far as autonomous vehicles are concerned, there’s just one measure: extending car insurance to cover them.
While we don’t yet have the text of the new Bill, it’s likely to be very similar to that in Part 1 of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. That would have extended compulsory vehicle insurance to cover accidents caused by a vehicle in autonomous mode – including any injuries to the ‘driver’ of that vehicle. The insurer would then have the right to recover those costs from the vehicle’s manufacturer, if a fault had occurred.
This may seem a relatively small change given the size of the transformation to come, and indeed it is. But what’s significant is that it demonstrates that policymakers are starting to contend with the issues raised by autonomous vehicles – and change the law accordingly.
The Government has also set up a new unit to coordinate transport and business policy relating to this new technology: the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, established in 2015. Its primary role is not to develop autonomous technology itself, but rather to support the private sector to do so – including through grants.
In his March 2015 Budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced a new £100 million ‘Intelligent Mobility Fund’, which awarded its first £20 million worth of grants in February 2016 and another £31 million in April this year. All of these grants are match-funded by industry.
In his first Autumn Statement last November, the new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, built on his predecessor’s commitment by promising another £100 million to develop the infrastructure needed to test and develop connected and autonomous vehicles – also match-funded by industry.
TRIALS ON PUBLIC ROADS
Of course, a key stage of developing any new technology is testing, and in the case of autonomous cars, that means clocking up miles on the road. In December 2014, the Government gave the go-ahead to formal trials of driverless cars in south-east London, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol.
This has enabled Ocado to begin testing self-driving vans on the streets of London. The company is using the autonomous ‘CargoPod’, developed by the Oxford-based software engineering firm Oxbotica, to delivery groceries in Greenwich.
UK Autodrive – a consortium made up of Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Tata and others – recently conducted a demonstration of autonomous vehicles in Nuneaton, and now plans to begin testing them on the roads of Coventry and Milton Keynes by the end of the year.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
So, the work of creating the autonomous cars of the future is very much underway in Britain today, and the Government is supporting it. But there remain big and important policy decisions to be made in the years to come.
Will we still need driving licences to operate self-driving cars? How should they be programmed to deal with dilemmas like the ‘trolley problem’? Who will own the large amounts of data they collect and disseminate? How can we ensure they are safe from being hacked?
All of these questions, and more, are sure to be making their way across legislators’ desks in the not-too-distant future. When it comes to answering them, changing insurance rules may seem like child’s play by comparison.