UK takes first steps toward laws for autonomous cars

Rules and regulations aren't exactly compatible with driverless tech yet.


The UK is proving to be quite the testbed for autonomous vehicles, thanks in no small part to government support. Tens of millions in funding is being funneled into various driverless car projects, and we already have rules of the road encouraging trials on public streets. With research and development simmering away nicely, the government is starting on the next course: Making sure laws, rules and regulations are updated for the autonomous age.

The government briefly set out its plan to ready the UK for driverless cars in the Queen's Speech a couple of months ago. And this week, it has launched an open consultation looking at how we can tweak regulations to make them compatible with driverless vehicles (ahead of their inclusion in the Modern Transport Bill). We're aways from being able to take a door-to-door trip without touching the wheel at this point, of course, but naturally the government has volunteered a few early proposals.

Insurance and liability

Car accident

Amending insurance law is one of the government's top priorities, because people won't be able to buy driverless cars without appropriate insurance. Arguably, it's the most complex issue too. Some insurers are already experimenting with suitable policies, but it's all a question of liability -- a word on the tip of everyone's tongue following the recent, fatal Tesla crash involving Autopilot. In a scenario where all vehicles are fully autonomous, for example, it's easy to blame manufacturers for any issues that result in a collision.

But autonomy is a gradient. There are already assistive technologies out in the wild, like self-parking features or Tesla's Autopilot mode, where the driver isn't necessarily in direct control. As we transition from regular cars all the way through to fully autonomous vehicles, the roads will be home to a mishmash of technologies that could make liability even harder to deduce. Also, when the driver is "out-of-the-loop," as the government phrases it, and tech is at fault, the driver could be considered one of the "victims" of a claim. That's another thing policies don't take into account currently.

The government has put forward a fairly common-sense framework to steer the discussion. Where the driver is at fault, either directly or through inappropriate use of assistive/autonomous tech, they are liable. Where the technology is at fault, the manufacturer is on the hook, though the government expects insurers and the makers of cars to cook up agreements that share the risk. Other situations, such as an accident caused by vehicle hacking, makes things altogether more complicated. As it stands, though, the idea is manufacturers will assume liability for the tech.

Highway Code and other regulations

In the longer-term, the powers that be are also suggesting several amendments to the Highway Code and other regulations that are at odds with driverless tech. Highway Code Rule 60, for example, states that you should have both hands on the wheel where possible, and maintain full control of your vehicle at all times. See the problem there? Similarly, minimum distance requirements between vehicles could be relaxed for autonomous "platooning," which would make for more efficient journeys.

Some regulations effectively prohibit self-parking features, too. We're talking about such rules as: you have to be in the car while the engine is on, be in full control and not staring at a mobile device while "driving." The incompatibilities are obvious even now, considering BMW's parking assistant works via a mobile app or key fob. The government is even thinking about a future where we can Netflix and chill while our cars drive us to work. As you'd imagine, this isn't even vaguely allowed at the moment, and for good reason.

As we've mentioned, these are just a few conversation starters, with the public consultation open until early September. Any real law / regulation changes are a little ways off, but it's clear the government doesn't want anything getting in the way of "making road transport safer, smoother, and smarter."

[Image credits: Getty (car accident), Bradford Timeline/Flickr (Highway Code)]