Business Technology

The UK's regulatory environment makes it the ideal centre for driverless technology

10 min read

11 February 2015

"The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as a pioneer in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects,” Vince Cable said in 2014. Since then we've all been waiting with bated breath to hear what the automative industry will be up to next, when testing will proceed and what the government's plans truly are. And today the driverless car is not as far off as you may think.

Driverless technology and its various opportunities have been at the forefront of many minds. Although we are far from Back to the Future II’s version of the ‘modern day’ car, the benefits are clear. The average driver in England, spending 235 hours driving every year, can save up to six working weeks a year worth of driving time. And it’s been said that automated vehicles will reduce accidents – 90 per cent of which was caused by human error.

Read more about Back to the Future II technology and the DeLorean:

So it’s no wonder that the government has today “confirmed the UK is uniquely positioned to develop driverless technology”. This may sound like old news, but it appears that Britain has an advantage over its rival countries.

The UK’s regulatory environment sets it apart as a premium location for such technology. The government also suggested that Britain has “some of the most challenging and diverse traffic, road and weather conditions in Europe and London is Europe’s only ‘Megacity’. This makes the UK the ideal centre for testing and developing these technologies.”

With this in mind, they are keen to keep the momentum going. “By working with the devolved administrations, the government will review and amend domestic regulations by summer 2017 to accommodate driverless vehicle technology,” a recent review from the Department of Transport said. “They will liaise at an international level with an aim to amend international regulations by the end of 2018.”

That’s a definite green light and call for full speed ahead.

Of course, “the increased interest in automated vehicle technologies has led some countries around the world to review their regulatory requirements,” suggested the review. Some have even taken steps to amend their legislative framework.

In Europe, only Germany and Sweden are known to have completed a review of their legislation in this area, the latter having already started testing. Finland, France and Netherlands are currently progressing one. This is all largely due to the a barrier known as the Vienna Convention on road traffic.

According to the review, “this requires that ‘every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver’ and that ‘every driver shall at all times, be able to control his vehicle’. Some have taken this to be a barrier to the introduction of automated vehicles. The Convention is in the process of being amended to allow a car to drive itself so long as the system can be overridden or switched off by the driver, though it has been argued a further change is needed to allow automated vehicles on the roads in many countries.”

So far, only France has pressed for an amendment on the Convention, something that seems to hold no sway over the UK even though we’re one of the countries signed up. And in Italy, in principle, automated transport systems may be considered legal “if they are certified according to a technical standard which has been developed for rail systems”.

North America hasn’t fared any better. Although it was the first country to introduce legislation to permit testing of automated vehicles, only four of its states have done so.

“15 states have rejected bills related to automated driving and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a preliminary statement of policy which advises states against authorising members of the public to use self-driving vehicle technology at this time,” the review explained.

Today, in order to keep ahead of the game, three driverless vehicle trials have launched. The trials will look at how the technology can be used to improve public and private transport in busy and complex road environments and will last from 18-36 months.

Ministers will witness the first official trials of the fully autonomous Meridian shuttle in Greenwich and unveil a prototype of a driverless pod that will be tested in public areas in Milton Keynes. They will also be shown other autonomous vehicles involved in the trials, including a BAE wildcat vehicle that is the result of years of advanced research and development by BAE systems and will be tested in Bristol.

Today’s announcement shows the UK’s strong intent to take this technology to the next level and investigate how vehicles that can take greater control could improve our driving experience and increase safety further.

The next step is for the government to introduce a code of practice which will provide industry with the framework they need to trial cars in real-life scenarios, and to create more sophisticated versions of the models that already exist.

Read more about driverless cars:

Business Secretary Vince Cable said: The UK is at the cutting edge of automotive technology – from the all-electric cars built in Sunderland, to the formula 1 expertise in the Midlands. It’s important for jobs, growth and society that we keep at the forefront of innovation, that’s why I launched a competition to research and develop driverless cars. The projects we are now funding in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry will help to ensure we are world-leaders in this field and able to benefit from what is expected to be a £900 billion industry by 2025.

“The government’s industrial strategy is backing the automotive sector as it goes from strength to strength, we are giving business the confidence to invest over the long term and developing cutting-edge technology that will create high skilled jobs.”

But while the government is attempting to bolster the position of the UK as a leading global supplier of driverless cars, Tim Ryan, executive chairman at UNA, believes that they are perhaps failing “to see the whole picture.”

“For example, both motor and personal insurance products will have to evolve dramatically in order to keep up with the seemingly safer driverless cars,” he explained. “In fact I’d go as far as saying this will be the end of conventional motor insurance. With a large majority of motor accidents resulting from human error, the safer driverless cars have the potential to remove this element of risk, which in turn has a positive impact on our road safety along with third party damage insurance premiums. With this said however, driverless cars are priced for people of a certain wealth – it is estimated that the starting price will be approx. £170,000. 

“Therefore the costs of replacing parts and making repairs should a crash occur, will be extremely high. If the car’s own automated system was to blame for a road accident, then specifically designed software to analyse the reasoning behind the crash would also be needed. The costs of such advanced technology will almost certainly inflate premiums and increase the demand for comprehensive policies. While we are some way from seeing a glut of driverless cars on the road, from an insurers point of view we have to keep up with this technology by aligning suitable and relevant products and policies. For our industry, now is to the time to think about the future impact and effects of the introduction of driverless cars.”