UK to add self-driving vehicles to official Highway Code


The UK government has set out changes to The Highway Code to clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles.

Under the new guidance, while traveling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to take back control in a timely way if they are prompted to, such as when they approach motorway exits. Drivers will also be allowed to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control. However, it will still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode.

The changes to The Highway Code will help ensure that the first wave of self-driving technology will be used safely.

Britain’s first vehicles approved for self-driving could be ready for use later this year. Vehicles will undergo rigorous testing and only be approved as self-driving when they have met stringent standards.

A public consultation, launched by the UK government, found that the majority of respondents were broadly supportive of the proposed changes to The Highway Code.

“This is a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles, which will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable,” says UK Transport Minister Trudy Harrison. “This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we’re ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads.”

The UK government expects to have a full regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles in place to support the widespread deployment of the technology by 2025.

The introduction of the technology is likely to begin with vehicles travelling at slow speeds on motorways, such as in congested traffic.

“The Highway Code has been updated a number of times in recent years to reflect the rapidly changing transport world we live in and these latest additions will help us all understand what we must and must not do as we move forward to an environment where cars drive themselves,” said Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation. “Self-driving technology in cars, buses and delivery vehicles could spark the beginning of the end of urban congestion, with traffic lights and vehicles speaking to each other to keep traffic flowing, reducing emissions and improving air quality in our towns and cities.”

“Amending The Highway Code to reflect the pace of technological change will help clarify what motorists can and can’t do when a self-driving feature is engaged, so promoting its safe use,” says Mike Hawes, chief executive of The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). “The technology could be available in the UK later this year and, with the right regulations in place, consumers are set to benefit from safer, more efficient journeys while the UK will strengthen its position as a global leader in the deployment of self-driving technology.”

However Balazs Csuvar, head of delivery at DG Cities, believes the updates to the code may be premature. “I would be surprised if self-driving vehicles are widely introduced this year,” he says. “If they are, I would question their safety.

“This is not a technology that can be thrust onto people by tweaking The Highway Code. Putting the onus on the driver is not fool proof, simply because self-driving cars are not being built for the one-in-a-million chance incidents and accidents; and they are not being tested against these either. They are being built for common scenarios that insurers deal with every hour of every day and personally, I believe that’s risky.”

“Drivers, cyclists, pedestrians alike all need reassurance that self-driving cars can deal with rare incidents not just frequent causes of accidents that algorithms are tested against by default. The numbers underline this – currently, only 37% of people trust self-driving vehicles. A quarter are undecided. There is a big gulf in public understanding of how AVs operate and the realities of autonomous technology. Until that is bridged, autonomous cars will not operate safely on our roads.

“I fear if we rush ahead, AV manufacturers will rush too, and accidents will occur. That could be detrimental to achieving the aims of reducing traffic and creating safer roads because regulators will simply put their foot down and resist granting licences and adopt more restrictive policy instead.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).