Another step closer to self-driving cars in the UK

28th July 2015

So far in the UK, the government has invested £19 million in driverless projects. These include the development of the Lutz Pathfinder pods (pictured above) and the Meridian shuttle (right), both of which were designed to travel along pedestrianised concourses in Milton Keynes and Greenwich.

However, despite the investment that driverless projects have seen in the UK, Britain has been lagging behind the USA in terms of testing autonomous vehicles on the roads, primarily due to a lack of regulatory guidance.

In a major breakthrough however, the Department for Transport has recently published a code of practice, which will encourage the testing of driverless vehicles on UK roads.

Although the code carries no legal status, compliance with its provisions would ultimately be considered in the event of an accident where liability would be considered, so it provides valuable guidelines to UK testers and developers.

The code addresses a number of relevant issues, including vehicle and test driver requirements, insurance, data protection issues and cyber security issues.

The main message is clear however – you can now test driverless technology in the UK, provided the vehicle can be used in compatibility with road traffic law and that a test driver is present to take responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle.

Driver Requirements

According to the code, test drivers require “skills over and above those of drivers of conventional vehicles”, which includes “a high level of knowledge about the technology used”, as well as extensive training in switching between automated and manual driving modes.

The code also says that drivers need to be “conscious of their appearance to other road users,” and to give the appearance that they are in control of the vehicle, even when the car is operating in an automated mode.

This measure is designed to prevent other motorist being worried or confused, and will also ensure that the test driver’s concentration remains fixed on the road, so he/she can take over control if necessary.

Stakeholder Engagement

The code recommends that that stakeholder engagement should be an integral part of risk assessment exercises and be used to identify and overcome potential issues.

It requires that relevant highway authorities are alerted to planned testing routes and that “specific infrastructure requirements” necessary for testing, such as traffic signalling, must be agreed with the individual road authorities.

It is also recommended that local emergency services should be informed of proposed testing and provided with the registration details of the vehicles involved.

The Department for Transport emphasises that for driverless vehicles to take off in the UK, manufacturers will need to build the public’s confidence in the safety and benefits of the technology. It recommends therefor that this process should begin prior to and during the testing stage.

Communications Strategy

The code requires testers to develop a public relations and media communication strategy to emphasise the benefits of driverless technology, explain the nature of the testing to be undertaken, outline the implications for other road users and the steps they can take to reduce any risks that might arise from the testing.

This should also address the concerns that the public have about the testing of driverless vehicles, with the aim of reassuring them, particularly the more vulnerable road users.

Vehicle Requirements

Before vehicles are tested on public roads and other public places, the code says that they must first undergo extensive testing on closed roads or test tracks. This will help to ensure that untested vehicles do not wind up on the roads, as well as providing reassurance to the public that the technology is fit for purpose and reasonably safe.

Developers are also required by the code to keep a complete and accurate audit trail of all tests. This could prove to be used as evidence in the event of a collision or dispute that the company had acted reasonably at all times.

Data should be recorded using a “data recording device” that can capture data from the various sensors and control systems used in the automated driving process, as “10Hz of more”. This data should identify when the vehicle is operating in automated mode and when it is not, the speed, steering and braking commands, operation of lights and indicators, the presence of other road users, and the use of the horn.

Data should be “securely stored” and “provided to the relevant authorities upon request”.

Personal data regarding living persons must be processed in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998, which requires it to be used fairly, kept securely and for no longer than is necessary.

Insurance

The code states that the same “statutory requirements” on motor insurance that apply to vehicle drivers also apply in the context of driverless cars, in that driving on public roads without insurance is prohibited by law.

Insurance policies may eventually be made available to cover the testing of driverless vehicles. However, the most likely solution in the meantime is that specialist providers provide bespoke insurance products to developers.


What is your opinion on the Department for Transports guidelines? Is the UK ready to see driverless cars? – Leave your opinion in the comments section below.


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