In the U.S., efforts to regulate self-driving cars have led to nothing but headaches. The federal government has issued no official guidance, and the few states that allow the testing of autonomous cars each have their own requirements in terms of driver training, DMV inspections, special license plates, and insurance. Complying with all of the relevant rules could prove to be a logistical nightmare for companies like Google.
The UK is taking a different approach. There will be no geographical limitations, no special permits, and no additional insurance required. Anything goes.
“The aim is to achieve a light-touch, non-regulatory approach which provides the clarity industry needs to invest in further research and development while maintaining safety,” the Department for Transport said in a report.
Under the “code of practice” expected to finalize shortly, car makers may begin testing driverless cars on public streets anywhere in the UK. The only requirements? Test vehicles must have a trained driver at the wheel along with an onboard data recorder gathering information such as speed, location, steering and braking inputs, and whether the car is operating in autonomous mode.
Why Driverless Cars?
The UK is right to be excited about driverless car technology, for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, in their testing to date, self-driving cars have proven to be far safer than human drivers. And that should come as no surprise: we humans are notoriously bad at driving safely. We get tired, we fall asleep, we get distracted, and we crash into things. Driverless cars have no such problems. No, they’re not perfect, but they’re constantly aware of their surroundings, they don’t get sleepy, and they can respond to surprises in milliseconds.
Looking forward a little further, driverless cars could also improve the issue of traffic congestion. Assuming we’re all being chauffeured around by robots, they could communicate with one another to make collective traffic-easing decisions. Temple Assistant Professor of Mathematics Benjamin Seibold is researching this very concept.
“Traffic that’s about to run into a jam could be slowed down by these autonomous vehicles in a subtle way, perhaps maybe just two miles an hour under the speed limit, so that it’s not a big nuisance to the rest of the drivers […] This could, for example, help dissipate stop-and-go waves in the traffic flow, and prevent prolonging the traffic jam ahead.”
With such a simple, straightforward approach to regulation, the UK is bound to attract the attention of companies working on self-driving cars worldwide. It has made itself the perfect testing ground — a great move for fostering innovation in Britain. Transport Minister Claire Perry said,
“Driverless cars are the future […] I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting new development, to embrace a technology that could transform our roads and open up a brand new route for global investment.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable had a similar take,
“The UK is at the cutting edge of automotive technology — from the all-electric cars built in Sunderland, to the formula 1 expertise in the Midlands […] It’s important for jobs, growth and society that we keep at the forefront of innovation, that’s why I launched a competition to research and develop driverless cars. The projects we are now funding in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry will help to ensure we are world-leaders in this field and able to benefit from what is expected to be a £900 billion industry by 2025.”
After completing preliminary testing on closed tracks, companies like Nissan, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Google, and Delphi can get their testing started this summer.
Should an accident caused by a driverless car occur, who will be held accountable? The UK government says liability is “ultimately a matter for the courts to decide,” though it notes that companies testing autonomous cars are expected “to take responsibility for ensuring the safe operation of the vehicle at all times.”
With that said, it will be interesting to see how insurance and liability are handled when these things reach the mass market. If my self-driving car hits your self-driving car, is it my fault or my car’s fault? Will I be held responsible, or will the manufacturer come into play?
Are You Ready?
Driverless cars are no longer just a cool idea — they’re real, they’re being tested on public streets, and they’re expected to be available to the public, in some form, by the end of the decade.
Are you excited about the robotic vehicles of the future, or do they make you a bit nervous? We’d love to hear your thoughts — please share them in the comments below!
Image Credit: GOV.UK