Driverless cars on UK roads by end of the year
Fully driverless cars are expected to take to Britain’s roads by the end of the year under government plans to scrap the requirement for a dedicated safety driver.
A system will be introduced to allow the first advanced trials on any public road of self-driving vehicles without a steering wheel or human in control. A strict application process will apply.
The Department for Transport said that the move would place Britain at the forefront of the technology. To date only limited trials of self-driving vehicles without a human monitor have taken place in the United States, which is seen as the global leader, and none elsewhere in Europe.
The move has been condemned by critics who claim that the vehicles are years away from being safe enough to operate without a driver. In March last year a 49-year-old woman was killed by a self-driving Uber, with a human monitor behind the wheel, as she crossed a road in Tempe, Arizona.
Transport experts from PA Consulting warned that fully driverless cars might not operate in Britain until the late 2020s because of public scepticism about the technology. Up to a dozen separate trials have been run in Britain over the past four years in areas such as Milton Keynes, Coventry, Bristol and Greenwich, south London.
A government code of practice for trials was published in 2015, outlining that testers needed a roadworthy vehicle and appropriate insurance and must comply with the rules of the road. The Department for Transport is due today to publish an updated code that imposes tougher safety standards. These include rules on data that must be collected, such as speed, braking commands and the presence of other road users.
Companies behind the trials will be expected to tell police in advance, issue directions to the public and consult local councils to understand the risk of encountering roadworks. The code also says that contingency plans for “scaling down, pausing or terminating activities during investigations or following an incident” must be in place.
The rules echo the 2015 code by insisting that a safety driver must be in constant operation — either inside the vehicle or via remote control. The driver should be “ready and able to override the vehicles”, the document says.
However, the Department for Transport said that it was also working on plans for “advanced” trials — those with no safety driver or remote operator. The system, which will be overseen by the government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, is being finalised and applications are expected to open soon to enable trials this year.
A spokesman for the department said: “The update to the code acknowledges the growing desire of industry to conduct more advanced trials, and a process to handle such trials on public roads is now being developed.”
Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said: “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.”
Christian Wolmar, a transport journalist and author, said: “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.”
Charlie Henderson, a roads specialist at PA Consulting, said: “Everything I have seen in the last year suggests that the development of autonomous vehicle capability is still slow. We are likely to see autonomous vehicles in a very limited form on our roads by 2023 but there is unlikely to be widespread public adoption for ten years.”
Q&A: Don’t we already have self-driving cars?
Most cars are already fitted with features such as self-parking and lane assist. Tesla’s Model S and Model X have an autopilot system that can detect other cars and change lanes automatically. The race is now on to develop fully driverless cars that can operate without human intervention.
Have fully driverless cars been tested here? There have been about a dozen trials with input from carmakers, universities and tech start-ups. Ministers have invested more than £250 million. An autonomous Range Rover, which drove on Coventry’s ring road last autumn changed lanes, merged with traffic and exited junctions as part of the £20 million Autodrive scheme. Most trials, including all those in Britain, have needed a driver on board or at a remote control system, ready to take over if something goes wrong.
What’s the benefit?
It is claimed that autonomous vehicles will make us much safer. Figures suggest that as many as nine in ten accidents on public roads are caused by human error, mainly drivers not looking properly and going too fast. Advocates of the technology also point to improvements in traffic flow in the long term as the stop-start of
normal vehicles is eliminated. There will also be a productivity boost, with motorists free to work while the car drives itself.
What’s the downside? A study last year by Arthur D Little, the management consultants, said that congestion could rise more than 16 per cent while driverless cars share the road with humans. It said that autonomous vehicles would be too focused on “obeying the law and not taking risks” when moving between lanes, causing more tailbacks.
What are other EU countries doing?
President Macron wants fully driverless cars on French roads by 2022. Spain and Italy are also among those to have held limited trials.
However, as well as the tech problems there's this: