Driverless cars are not new to the U.K. Some models of autonomous vehicles, despite not having been designed for public roadways, have been making their way around pedestrian spaces like parks. But on July 19th, the Department for Transport (DfT) issued new rules surrounding the testing of driverless cars — a move that coincides with the government’s recent investments into making the U.K. a prime testing ground for this new technology.
Many of the rules are predictable: operators of the vehicles need to have insurance, obey the rules of the road, have valid road worthiness certificates, and avoid using phones and mobile devices. The Code of Practice specifies that even operators of the vehicles who are not inside of them must avoid using their phones in addition to not drinking or using drugs. Additionally, the new law states that automated vehicles being tested “should be fitted with a data recording device which is capable of capturing data from the sensor and control systems associated with the automated features as well as other information concerning the vehicle’s movement.”
These changes to the DfT’s policy piggy back on a year of investments from the U.K. into driverless car technology, as the country looks to be a major player in this next era of vehicle development. As Blouin News reported in early June, the British government earmarked $61 million for trials in testing new rules for various types of driverless cars, and another $155 million in government funding is expected to be released for future driverless vehicle R&D. Trials have won the backing of companies including Ford, Tata Motors, and Williams, the Formula One racing team. Additionally, major manufacturers like Volvo, Tesla, and Mercedes have said that the first autonomous vehicles will be on the U.K.’s roads as early as 2018-2020.
Despite this advancement of the law, and general acceptance of the existence of the driverless car — even if they aren’t mainstream yet — controversy persists. A collision that occurred on July 1 in the U.S. involving one of Google’s driverless cars sent three of its employees who were testing the vehicle to the hospital. The company has come back saying that the risks lie not with its cars, but with other drivers — something that Google says works in its favor. Chris Urmson who heads Google’s driverless car project wrote:
It’s particularly telling that we’re getting hit more often now that the majority of our driving is on surface streets rather than freeways; this is exactly where you’d expect a lot of minor, usually-unreported collisions to happen. Other drivers have hit us 14 times since the start of our project in 2009 (including 11 rear-enders), and not once has the self-driving car been the cause of the collision. Instead, the clear theme is human error and inattention.
The safety of the driverless car will continue to be at the core of the debate involving industry, governments and consumer groups. Nonetheless, Google and other developers aren’t hiding their statistics showing that driverless cars are far less likely to instigate accidents than human-driven vehicles. And testing has been approved in multiple states in the U.S., with investment growing as well. The Wall Street Journal reports that Toyota and some other companies are backing a $10 million testing ground at the University of Michigan for self-driving vehicles.
There is a long road ahead for the driverless car, but it is well on its way.