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Home / News and Insights / Insights / Autonomous vehicles: a bumpy journey or smooth ride?

Self-driving cars have long been the preserve of sci-fi films, but the reality of seeing them on the roads is closer than ever. Currently, the automotive industry’s main focus is the phasing out of petrol and diesel vehicles and the development of Electric Vehicles (EVs); however, many companies have continued to develop autonomous vehicle (AV) innovation, believing there will soon be significant demand for the same. In addition to personal self-driving cars and autonomous taxis, it is predicted that lorries carrying supplies could revolutionise the transport of people and goods. Despite the obvious benefit to business – research indicates that the AV sector could create around 38,000 jobs – there are still concerns among employees in supply chain transport and logistics jobs.

A good example of self-driving car innovation in motion is Nissan’s ServCity project. Taking place in Woolwich, the consortium-backed project deployed a self-driving car to autonomously navigate the busy streets of London using sensors and cameras. The project has proved valuable and is the first of its kind to use surrounding roadside infrastructure to supplement the vehicles’ own systems. Not only has this demonstrated the achievements of AV technology, but it has also caused people to evaluate present infrastructure in urban areas, with many wondering if traffic lights may become redundant in the not-too-distant future. The significant grant from the government-run Centre for Connected & Autonomous Vehicles used to fund the ServCity project underscores the UK government’s support for innovative projects of this type.

In the race to develop the best AV car, companies including Oxbototica, Waymo and Cruise have also run self-driving tests over the last few years. While the US has been the international trailblazer of self-driving cars to-date, the UK automotive sector (and government) are beginning to recognise the importance of engaging with this technology.

What is the law?

In its joint report, Autonomous Vehicles, The Law Commission defines an autonomous vehicle as:

a vehicle that is designed to be capable of “driving itself”: to operate in a mode “in which it is not being controlled and does not need to be monitored by an individual, for at least part of a journey”.

Within this definition, there are five levels of automation, from driver assistance at the lowest level to full automation at the top level.

Much like other emerging technologies, the AV industry is evolving at a rapid pace with the government carefully monitoring the industry’s development. In August 2022, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation outlined a roadmap which commits to establishing a new legislative framework for self-driving vehicles entitled Connected and Automated Mobility 2025: Realising the benefits of self-driving vehicles in the UK. By encouraging and supporting further development in this emerging technology, the UK government aims to capitalise on the growth of an industry that is estimated to reach over $2 trillion globally by 2030.

While The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 has been in place for some time in order to deal with issues of liability following an accident, it does not address who is at fault if the technology fails: driver or technology creator. Related legislation also currently only applies to AVs which can be driven lawfully on public roads, with insurance specifications failing to extend to other vehicles which can be operated independently but cannot be driven on public roads, such as agricultural vehicles. These would still fall under insurance laws contained in the Road Traffic Act 1988 and could hold back development of these types of vehicles. It is anticipated that the matter of liability will be addressed and written into law before 2025.

What are the drawbacks?

The industry is clearly still in its infancy, and it should be noted that the government has only pledged to allow self-driving cars on British roads by 2025. Whether the infrastructure and relevant laws will be sufficient is at present unknown, with consumers still lacking confidence in the technology. Last week, Tesla, one of the companies at the forefront of AV development, had to recall over 350,000 cars due to issues with the self-driving software. This follows multiple incidents of safety issues including the death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in 2018 during autonomous vehicle testing by Uber. Liability for autonomous car crashes remains a significant grey area for UK lawmakers. We will be monitoring the updates to the law as it changes.

What is the future for self-driving cars?

The future for self-driving cars is positive. In addition to investment in the technology itself, EV and AV cars play a role in helping to de-clutter urban landscapes and also present great opportunities for multiple sectors by creating new job and employment openings.

Meanwhile, innovation continues at pace. Now that self-driving cars are a near certainty, engineers can turn to another goal: flying cars (like the one tested in Japan last week).

To get the latest from our Technology and Innovation team, visit their homepage.

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