The U.K. government’s Department for Transport today announced plans to support advanced trials of autonomous vehicles, with the goal of having fully self-driving vehicles on its roads by 2021. But changes to the code of practice for testing have some criticizing the announcement for eliminating the need for an in-vehicle safety monitor.
The government said advanced trials “will not be supported unless they have passed rigorous safety assessments,” and that the code of practice “will be strengthened further to set even clearer expectations for safe and responsible trials.”
Update allows remote operation
First published in 2015, the code of practice “makes clear that automated vehicle trials are possible on any U.K. road provided they are compliant with U.K. law – including testing with a remote driver,” the DfT said in its announcement. “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.”
The new code states that during trials on public roads or in other public places, “a suitably licensed and trained safety driver or safety operator should supervise the vehicle at all times, ensuring the vehicle is observing traffic laws, and should be ready and able to over-ride automated operation if necessary. The safety driver or operator may be outside of the vehicle, as long as they have the necessary capability to be able to resume control of the vehicle.” The 2015 version of the code of practice did not mention remote operation.
With the new code, companies carrying out trials for autonomous vehicles will need to publish safety information, trial performance reports, and carry out risk assessments before conducting a trial, the government said. Organizations running trials “are also expected to inform the relevant authorities, emergency services, and anyone who might be affected by trial activity.”
The U.K. market for connected and automated vehicles is estimated to be worth £52 billion ($67.3 billion) by 2035, the government said, and the news “demonstrates that the government is on track to meet its commitment to having fully self-driving vehicles on U.K. roads by 2021”, as part of its modern Industrial Strategy.
“We want to ensure through the Industrial Strategy Future of Mobility Grand Challenge that we build on this success and strength to ensure we are home to development and manufacture of the next generation of vehicles,” said Richard Harrington, automotive minister for the U.K. “The update to the code of practice will provide clearer guidance to those looking to carry out trials on public roads.”
Doubts on speed of development, liability
While the government seems optimistic about the changes and the goals for cars on roads by 2021, others were not so sure. Writing in The Telegraph, Tom Hoggins suggested that removing the safety driver “sounds great in principle, accelerating development of autonomous technology within this country… But the idea that driverless cars will be in commercial operation by 2021? Pull the other gearstick.”
Hoggins suggests that the country should proceed with caution on its plans. “If the industry suffers embarrassment, or worse, due to fully driverless car tests being rushed through, it could put the brakes on the whole enterprise.”
Others are concerned with potential liability issues and legal and ethical issues that have yet to be settled or enacted. “Companies are pushing ahead with autonomous vehicle development ahead of the law,” said Andrew Jerrard, a commercial services lawyer at U.K. firm Coffin Mew. “We will likely see significant lobbying for the law to remove responsibility from manufacturers (and software developers) of autonomous vehicles to drivers with an emphasis on promoting the U.K.’s technology services in the face of Brexit. The principles of manufacturer’s liability and fitness for purpose run contrary to the manufacturer’s aim.”
Such concerns mirror attitudes in the U.S., where liability and responsibility are among the top concerns of those driving autonomous vehicle development.
To download a free copy of the U.K.’s new code of practice for automated vehicle trials, click here.